We wore nice clothes back then. Mama combed all of our hairbraids and hair ribbons for the girls; brushed-out waves for the boysgreased our faces and made sure we knew to sit still, say please and thank you (and preferably, no thank you) and be quiet.
We were going to old peoples’ housesat least this is what I gathered, in my young mind. Daddy knew many of Durham’s older, black, history-making residents. So every once in a while (on weekends, holidays, summer breaks) the Moses clanoften all seven of uswere herded into a car, admonished to “act right,” and taken on mini visitations to meet the Kennedys, the Hendersons, the Scarboroughs, the Lees, of Durham, North Carolina. Thanksgiving, was Dr. Franklin’s.
I remember feeling restless, mostly. Hard to sit still while grown folks are talking about what grown folks talk about, especially when there are sights and sounds and smells in old houses that are beckoning young eyes and ears and legs to explore. I didn’t know then that I was visiting history, was being exposed to knowledge and people I would later read about in schoolbooks, newspapers and magazines, would see on TV. Back then, I just wanted to run, and not be told to sit still and not have to wait until we got home to ask the questions that were being held hostage behind tightly pressed lips: “What are those brown spots on your hands?” “Can I see your flower garden?” “Can I look at your books?” “Do your bones hurt?” “What is that smell?”
On our way to a particular destination, daddy would give us a brief seminar about the person we were visiting. Mr. William J. Kennedy was the president of N.C. Mutual, the nation’s first black insurance company; Mrs. Clydie Scarborough married into the Scarborough family, who owned the nursery school we all attended; Mr. J.J. Henderson worked at N.C. Mutual and later had a public housing unit for seniors, the J.J. Henderson Towers, named after him; Mrs. Mollie Huston Lee was the first African-American librarian in Wake County and was well known in the black communityher home was often a stop-through point for black notables visiting the area, including W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. (The Richard B. Harrison Library in Raleigh was founded by Lee and now houses her 5,000-volume collection of black literature.) All information I’m sure I quickly forgot, until I was old enough to remember knowing it at all.
Dr. Franklin’s house was my favorite. I remember his wife who had freckles and was very nice to us, and the seemingly millions of books that furnished his walls. Mama would always bake a cake to take along with us, and I knew that after the extensive sitting and being still, we would get to go outside to see his orchids.
Decades later, I make a visitation on my own. My hair is uncombed, my clothes, though clean, are un-ironed, and this time, I sit on the floor, cross my legs at the ankles and look around openly.
Dr. Franklin is as I remember him, though, of course, much older (he turned 90 in January). He is still tall, though he slouches sideways in his chair as we talk; his sitting room is still filled with books; he still has a love for orchids. I still remember him as the kindly host, though he is much more than that: a renowned historian, intellectual and civil rights advocate, and former chair of President Clinton’s One America initiative on race.
I recently heard him speak at “Realizing the Dream: Where Do We Go From Here?” a panel discussion at Duke University, and was struck by the notion that he had somehow lost hope that this nation would justly deal with its problem of race relations, if at all. I asked him about his optimism, his dreams, his thoughts on voting practices in the black community, and debts, both personal and national.
This time, as he talked, I listened. And remembered. Knowing, somehow, that I was participating in history. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What kind of world did you dream of as a young boy, growing up in Rentiesville, Oklahoma?
I dreamed of a world that was fair and just and where I would be treated like a human being, as I frequently was not treated when I was growing up.
As a historian, you’re interested in getting at truths. What do you think the truth is about this country?
Well, on the one hand, the country professes to be a democracy. On the other hand, it is really not, in the sense that it gives everyone the opportunity to participate equally in the social and political and economic order. There is still too much in the way of the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker; there is much less idealism than I would like to see; there is certainly is less idealism that is practiced and that is promoted as a norm or as an objective for this country to achieve.
How would you describe the history of America?
Well, I think what we misunderstand very frequently is how the country was founded; we aren’t clear, as people, how it was founded. It was founded by a group of colonists who were extremely clear on what they wanted for themselves, but not clear on what they wanted for others. So there were, almost from the beginning, various forms of religious and political discrimination.
Look at what happened in Massachusetts in the Bay Colony in the 17th Century: A woman who stood up for what she thought was right and who stood up for her own interpretation of the Bible was run out into the wilderness, mercilessly, on the part of the people who were in power. They didn’t care what happened to Ann Hutchinson. And that was in the 17th centurythose are the kind of people who founded this country
To say nothing of the people who founded Virginia, who dragged slaves in, almost from the beginning, and sat back while they worked. The so-called Founding Fathers reaped the harvest that was made by African slaves. So almost from the beginning, we’ve had some false starts.
Do you think that because of these false starts from the beginning, that’s why this country is still reeling from a lot of these issues?
Yes, yes, I do. I do believe that it was a faulty beginning and we have not recognized that as a nation. And the result is that we go stumbling and fumbling on with these false premises.
So how do we get our footing?
I don’t know (chuckles). I wish I did know. If I knew how we could get our footing, I think that I would be the wisest person on the face of the earth. But we have to get our footingtry to get our footingby reminding ourselves of what the ideals were that were never realized. We have to fight to protect those precious ideals until we can come into a realization of them.
The ideal of equality, the ideal of justice, the ideal of fair play, the ideal of every person being entitled to the benefits of his labor and so forth.
You described how America was founded on faulty ground. How would you describe the history of African Americans in relation to this country?
African Americans came over and their labors were exploited from the beginning. That the laws of this country, as they evolved, were laws which subjugated them, enslaved them, argued that they were not equal, that they had, somehow, no rights under the laws of the countryand that was the climate. That was the 19th century. Can you imagine a country that claims to sponsor equality setting up a system of strict segregation, separation, a kind of apartheid?
I listened to you speak at the discussion, “Realizing the Dream,” at the Duke Law School and one thing that I noticed is that you seem to have lost optimism that people in this country are willing to acknowledge and confront past wrongs that have been done to African Americans. You spoke about traveling through the country as the chairman of One America and how people weren’t ready to talk about racism. Do you think that things will change in terms of race relationsdo you still have hope?
I hope, I hope. I’m not sure what that’s based on, except that one has to hope in order to live. But my experience with the President’s committee was not a very uplifting experience. People were blasting me as though I was responsible for having brought about whatever misunderstanding there was between the races.
People were saying, “What are you talking about? Everything is all right.” Others said, “Why are you talking, things can not get better.” There was the kind of malaise, the kind of hopelessness that is not very encouraging.
Would you say that there is a certain sense of hopelessness, or wanting to forget, on the part of most Americans?
I can’t say on the part of most Americans. I can only say it’s to the extent that I saw itI’m always hoping that that’s not the case. I hope I’m wrong; I hope I misread or misunderstood the peoplebut I don’t think I did.
What came out of those travels? What was the product of talking to all these people?
Well we made a special report to the president; we made recommendations. Of course the president went out of office the next year and the whole mechanism that we established was dismantled by the new administration. They have their own way of dealing with these mattersit’s a way in which I don’t understand.
Why is the subject of race, particularly black-white relations, such a taboo topic in this country?
It’s because the majority of white Americans have set up a set of theories about race which are at best inaccurate, and at worst, bigoted and demagogic. And if you want to examine it, you have to call into question all the tenets that this country has established in respect to race. And that’s the challenge that many Americans are not willing to face.
Take the example the whole question of Strom Thurmond’s daughter [it was revealed last year that Thurmond had a daughter by an African American, Carrie Butler, when she was the 16-year-old housemaid of his parents.] Some said it should have been left unknown; others said they knew it all the time; others said, “Oh, how tragic!” But the tragedy is those who claimed that it was tragic. Not that this man had taken advantage of a young girl, but that it was tragic that people focused attention on it now. No one that I know of has suggested that this man who was an adult and this woman who was not an adulta minorthis man was guilty of statutory rape. They didn’t say that he had assaulted her, or that he raped her.
Surely, had she been white, and the male was black… 80 years later, it would’ve been declared assault, it would’ve been declared rape.
I haven’t heard anyone say that this man was guilty of a felony, of assault, of a violation not only of a person, but a violation of the law. Unless you say there are different categories of law: laws governing whites and ones governing blacks.
So you’re speaking now about language; that was a big conversation at the panel discussion, too, regarding the word “reparations” and how this word might be too emotionally charged. How do we claim language and form our own words around who we are, and how do we transfer this to society so that it’s not always this negative language used to describe African Americans?
Well, we have to use language to really describe a situation. We can’t use language just for the sake of politics or having good manners. If a man has raped a woman, we have to say so. We can’t deny that, there’s no point in denying it. We can’t have double standards of language any more than we can have double standards of conduct.
What price do we pay for choosing silence? For forgetting our past and historical events such as the Tulsa or Wilmington race riots?
The persistence of lies; the persistence of denial of guilt; the persistence of denial of justice. The price we pay is undermining our whole social systemit may collapse under its own false standards.
How long should we keep events like this in the public memory? Is there ever a time when we should forget?
We should always remember. We have to remember what has happened; if we don’t we are bound to repeat what has happened.
How do we continue to transmit these memories?
Those of us who know must refuse to be silenced by those who insist we must forget. Let’s say you’re white and you don’t want to talk about it. Well I’m black and I’ll talk about it, cause I want people to know what you did to my people in 1921 [speaking of the Tulsa race riots that were virtually erased from public memory]. And the time will never come when it shouldn’t be known. It should’ve been known immediately and we would’ve had it cleared up by now, but there was a conspiracy of silence.
The mayor of Tulsa, who was born in Tulsa, told me that she was a grown woman before she ever knew that there had been a race riotthat’s extraordinary.
Do you think we talk about race too much in this country? Do we focus on it too much?
No. That’s one of the things people objected to when the president appointed me to the advisory board on racethat we talk about it too much. It’s in the system. It’s embedded so deeply in the system, both in terms of law and custom, that almost everywhere, it’s there. We must talk about it to exorcise it, to get rid of it.
What type of world did you dream of as a young man, when your eyes were opened and you actually saw the world for what it was?
I dreamed of a world in which I was treated like anyonethat’s just the world my mother taught me to dream of. And that’s the world I continue to want to see. I have the same attitude that I had when I was a kid.
What does America owe African Americans?
The main thing they owe is the acknowledgement of how we’ve been mistreated; how we’ve been exploited. I said the other day, we don’t even acknowledge the fact that slaves were sold right in the shadow of the capital of the United States. We don’t acknowledge the fact that slaves had to build that capital. We don’t acknowledge the fact that when the capital was founded, when they set it up in 1800, that laws were passed by the Congress of the United States that blacks could not vote, could not hold officethere were a whole string of things that blacks could not do. We have to acknowledge that. We have to recognize the injustice, and the egregious misconduct on the part of the federal government and the people of the United States.
Once America acknowledges this misconduct, is that it?
Well, it would certainly help clear the air. At the same point, it would cause this country to acknowledge its own egregious past.
What do African Americans owe ourselves and each other?
We owe, they owe a great dealmuch more then they think they do. First they owe to themselves and to the country, the most diligent, most consistent, and most serious pursuit of being as able, and as able to contribute to the well-being of this country, as anyone else. They owe this country the highest standards of excellence that they can achieve. They are not only serving the country, they’re serving the community and they cannot sit by and say that they can’t do anything because they’re victims.
Over 50 years ago I was teaching at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and I made a rather strict, rigid assignment that was rather demanding. And one student raised their hand and said, “I don’t think you can do this to us, we’re only 50 years out of slavery.” He wanted to have a watered-down treatment because his ancestors were slaves. That’s the kind of sophism I cannot abide.
I don’t ask of my students any more than I ask of myselfand that is the very highest standard of performance, of achievement. To not indulge oneself in pity, but to struggle to be as close to perfect as one can be. My mother used to tell me: “The thing I want you to do is to do your best; the angels can’t do any better.” And we owe this to ourselves, we owe it to our country to be the very best we can and to lead exemplary lives, not to indulge in self-pity and not to indulge in recrimination against others. Let the laws and let the forces of justice do that.
Do you think there is any danger of us forgetting our history?
Sure there is a danger, especially if we don’t know it in the first placethere’s nothing to forget. There’s a danger that we have not acquired the information regarding our history. And not having acquired it, there’s really nothing to pass on, anyway.
So we need to step back and ask ourselves: What is it that we need to know about the experiences of our forebears and what their relationship was with their communities? What is it that they did that we need to continue to do? What is it that we need to pass down? Those are the questions that are important, particularly at this time of year, especially as we reflect on our history.
What presidential candidate do you have hope for in terms of leading this country into the future?
I don’t know (chuckles), it changes every day.
I think there is no clear-cut choice; I’m afraid that the country is in for even worse times than we’re inI don’t think I’ve ever been so pessimistic about our future.
A lot of people are pessimistic about the current administration and the fact that things are getting worse. And because of this, a lot of people, especially in the African-American community, don’t vote because they feel they don’t have a voice, they don’t feel they have a reason to vote.
Well there’s always a choice that one must make and one cannot recoil from that or refuse to make a choice. You can choose between two evilsone is more evil than the other. So you don’t say, “I’m gonna stay at home because none of them are any good.” You can go out and vote because one is not as bad as the other, if you want to put it that way.
I think it’s incomprehensibly irresponsible for adults of any persuasion, any color, to sit on his hands and not participate. So you’re letting others make the choice for you. I refuse to do that; I’ve got to make my choice. Even if my choice does not prevail, I’ve expressed myself. That’s very, very important.
Black people have a history of voting Democratic, even if the Democrat is not the best candidate. How do we educate ourselves on the issues and policy in order to know how to vote and who to vote for?
You know, the adherence of African Americans to the Democratic party is relatively new as time goes on. Before Roosevelt, you didn’t have blacks voting Democratic in large numbers; they all voted Republican, the party of Lincoln. And by the same token, I doubt that Southern whites know why they vote Republican now. It was because Strom Thurmond walked out of the Democratic National Convention in 1948 and started a trend away from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. And then Nixon developed a Southern strategy which of course presumed that Republicans in the South could flourish on the basis of excluding blacks.
So a black man who is Republican in 2004 may be the same kind of person that would have been a Democrat earlier; a person who is a Democrat now is the kind of person who may have been a Republican before.
And we have to know these things; we have to study them. You have to study, read about it and become acquainted with what’s been going on. And on the basis of that, you can reach some conclusion as to whether you want to move in this direction, politically, or in another direction, politically.
Dr. Franklin, you’ve been alive now for almost a century and you’ve seen a lot, you’ve experienced a lot, you’ve done a lot. What type of world do you dream of now, and do you dream of future generations growing up in?
I dream of a world like we’ve not had to this point. And as I get older, I get more anxious. I think sometimes, I am the opposite of the ideal that Winston Churchill described when he said: If a young man is not radical, there’s something wrong with him; and if an old man is radical, there’s something wrong with him.
Well, I think an old man needs to be radical, too. Because change had not come when I was young, I have to keep on being radical to try to see if change can come. And the older I get, the more impatient I get because of the shorter time I have to realize what I’d like to see.
So, having lived 90 years, gives me some perspective; it gives me some anxiety, too. I want my son to live in a better world than I lived in. I want all of you to live in a better world than I’ve lived in. That means I’m working just as hard as I ever did. But that’s the responsibility of every human beingto make the world better.
“I want mine, you get yours as you can, but I’m not gonna help you lift up yourself,” that’s the most uninspiring, I think, un-American concept.
What does it mean to be an American?
The ideal of an American is something that all of us can be and maybe none of us are. I don’t think [being an American] has any special attributes.
What does it mean to be an African American?
It’s the same thing. I could say it means being put down, being a part of a long and unsavory and unpleasant history, but I wouldn’t be inspired or moved by that, either.
What does inspire you?
To be a human being. Upstanding. Concerned for others. To be fair, to make sure that everybody is being treated fairthat’s what’s important.