Monday, April 6, 2009

The Audacity of John Hope




I still can't believe that John Hope Franklin is gone. I met him a handful of times, and each encounter was awe inspiring. He was the scholar’s scholar, always working, thinking, writing. His research was decidedly political without being polemical, an example of rigorous scholarship that changed the world with little need to self-righteously proclaim as much.

I only had one really substantive conversation with John Hope Franklin. It was about five or six years ago, on a plane ride from Tennessee to Durham, North Carolina. We had just spent a weekend on the same “advisory panel,” two of several scholars brought down to talk about the future of the prestigious Race Relations Institute at Fisk, Franklin’s alma mater.

I’m a Howard grad myself, and I’d never even visited the Fisk campus before that weekend. But I learned a great deal about the place as a function of listening to Franklin and others talk about their sense of where the Institute had been and where it should be headed in the future. (The event also featured my only meeting with former Vice President Al Gore, who served as a special adviser to the group. He was already out of public office and had not yet re-emerged on the international scene with his global-warming documentary. He seemed equally awed by Franklin, which moved me, too.)

But Franklin and I really didn’t get a chance to talk at length until the plane ride back to Duke University, where we were both located at the time. It just so happened that we were seated next to one another, and I got a chance to ask him about his past teaching stint at Howard University. His response had me buckled over in the aisle, laughing uncontrollably, but maybe "just to keep from crying" (as the saying goes).

Usually, when contemporary Howard students talk about their beloved institution (and we do love HU), they have two related ways of describing the place. There is a kind of hushed reverence for bygone eras (during and immediately after segregation) when luminaries such as Franklin roamed Howard's Yard. We wonder how different the place must have been back then. The same, but different.

For one thing, there was less competition for pioneering black faculty from the likes of Harvard, Duke, or Yale. So Howard and other HBCUs had something close to a monopoly in that area. At the same time, Howard students also trafficked in a plaintive discourse about how tough it could be negotiating the institution on a daily basis. It didn’t seem very student-friendly to us. If anything, we imagined that the school’s aim was to toughen us up (and prepare us for the real world) by making our day-to-day lives more difficult than they needed to be. Tough love. Howard didn’t kill you, we said. It only made you stronger. We loved our school, don’t get things twisted. And I most decidedly still do. But we agreed with one another (when not in mixed collegiate company) about Howard sometimes making our daily lives a living hell.

Our best example was registration week. My first year, we would queue up at the beginning of semesters to register for classes on the main yard at 7 or 8 a.m. And it wasn’t unprecedented that we still wouldn't actually get to register by late that evening, when the lines closed and we headed back to our respective dorm rooms committed to waking up even earlier the following day for round two. Of course, this all predated online registration, so I’m sure current Howard undergrads don’t have to endure such an ordeal. But we kind of embraced it as a badge of honor, an example of how Howard made its graduates hardier than most, ready for anything the world might subsequently throw our way.

At the same time, we imagined that such antics were a negative byproduct of integration: that the school must have had a different ethos before then. Howard probably had more resources for staffing registration lines, we thought. It definitely could boast the most famous African-American faculty in the country. So, it probably had a different mentality vis-à-vis its constitutive community members. It must have felt (and operated) so much differently back then. Or so we thought. During that one plane ride back to Duke, Franklin disabused me of that romantic assumption before the plane took off.

He regaled me with memories about his years teaching at Howard, and he laughed about how difficult the administration made his everyday life. His funniest line was about how they made him feel like he had the unbridled “audacity” (his word) to actually want his checks from payroll. He joked about having to consistently march to the administration building in search of them, stopping in office after indifferent office, inquiring humbly about where his money might be. And all the while, he said, they acted like he was being a nuisance, a pain in the butt, for needing to eat and pay bills and maybe even squirrel the little remainder away for later.

As someone who obviously matriculated through Howard much, much later than Franklin taught there, it was hilarious to hear him wax comedic about his tenure at the place. In many ways, his experience struck me as quite authentically Howard, and not all that different from the kinds of hazing processes that we lovingly complained about in the 1990s, especially if we had successfully run the gauntlet and made it to that graduation stage.

photo courtesy of dukenews.com

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