The trailblazing African American historian John Hope Franklin has died at the age of 94. Chair of President Bill Clinton's Presidential Initiative on Race and a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Franklin was best known for his research on the lives of free blacks living in the pre-Civil War South. I was lucky to meet Franklin four years ago and write a profile of him for my college paper. Here is an excerpt of that piece:
Another piece of accepted history Franklin questions is the notion that there are uniquely white and black "cultures" within the United States, as opposed to uniquely white and black experiences. Because Franklin maintains that Americans of different races have more in common than they realize, he is skeptical of attempts to tackle the issue of race in homogenous settings.
"I don't believe you can get anywhere doing it separately - you've got to have communication," he said.
Franklin continued, "I have a feeling that this difference in cultures is overdrawn, overblown sometimes. How different is my culture from yours? Well, there's food. Black food is Southern food. ... Or dress? What is dress? Most people wear clothes like I wear, like you wear, like we all wear. And when they're not wearing that, they're wearing a costume. An African dashiki is a costume in this country. Religion. What's religion? Blacks didn't have any Christianity - they got it from whites."
More controversially, Franklin argued that American blacks might be willing to give up some of their group cultural identity in exchange for complete tolerance. "Blacks have been lonely and have tried to create a culture," he said. "Kwanzaa - that was just created whole cloth. It's so contrived. ... There's more of a culture in common that blacks and whites have. Unless there's a deliberate effort to create a separate culture."