Monday, April 06, 2009

Bakari Kitwana: Did John Hope Franklin Want $100 Trillion for Blacks?

Bakari Kitwana: Did John Hope Franklin Want $100 Trillion for Blacks?

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Dr. John Hope Franklin, the wildly accomplished historian who documented Blacks' place in the great American story, firmly believed in reparations -- the idea that the descendants of slaves in the United States should be compensated for the centuries of free labor that enriched slaveowners and their descendants and the American empire. It is a fact overlooked by the recent flurry of mainstream media coverage commemorating his life work. (He died at the age of 94 late last month.) But it is no small detail.

Consider his response in 2007 to state legislators in North Carolina and Virginia who balked at apologies for slavery introduced by their peers. For him a mere verbal apology wasn't enough.

"People are running around apologizing for slavery," he said. "What about that awful period since slavery -- Reconstruction, Jim Crow and all the rest? And what about the enormous wealth that was built up by black labor? I think that's little to pay for the gazillions that black people built up -- the wealth of this country -- with their labor, and now you're going to say I'm sorry I beat the hell out of you for all these years? That's not enough."

When Dr. Franklin spoke of history, he did so with the definitive authority of an expert who spent over half a century culling through the details. His accomplishments are legendary: distinguished Duke University professor who taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard University (where he earned his doctorate in 1941); author of 20 books; first African American to chair a history dept at a predominately white university; over 3.5 million copies of his book From Slavery to Freedom have been printed since it's 1947 publication.

It is very easy now in our age of political correctness to courteously applaud the accomplishments of a barrier breaking African American in the field of U.S. History, which he said he wrote without "the embellishment of emotional display." But an entirely different pill to swallow is the conclusion he gleaned from his analysis: reparations are essential to acknowledging the country's wrongs.

"There are all kinds of ways you could do it," Franklin said in a video interview at Duke University, in which he insisted he wasn't asking for reparations personally -- even though he was entitled. "What about scholarships? What about descent places for people to live? Out of the fortunes that were made, you could build a mansion for the descendant of every former slave."

Others have argued that reparations should be paid directly by the U.S. government, which Harpers magazine (November 2000) estimated at $100 trillion dollars for 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865 with compounded interest of 6 percent. Still others have argued that payments should come from corporations who benefited as well as former colonial governments.

The idea of reparations for Blacks has for years been met in the American mainstream with at best contempt and at worst ridicule. But for John Hope Franklin the essential truth of American history was found not just in the large sweeping narrative, but also in the subtleties of the racial divide lived everyday.

His careers as a historian and as an activist (he was a researcher for Thurgood Marshall for the Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education case and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma) are well documented. Less known are his day-to-day confrontations with the legacy of white supremacy, subtleties he often related in personal anecdotes:

As a 6 year-old boy, his father's business in Tulsa was destroyed (luckily his father survived) during the infamous 1921 race riot. As one of the first Black boy scouts in 1927, he was severely reprimanded midway through helping a blind white woman cross the street upon her discovery he was black. In 1995, while in DC to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest award for a civilian, he hosted a party for friends at the Cosmos Club where he was a member and was asked by a white woman to get her coat, even though uniform attendants were present.

Personal insults like these only scratch the surface of the economic and psychological setbacks he suffered, like countless other African Americans, at the hands of white supremacy ingrained in American culture. Insults like these were a reminder of the big picture reasons why descendant of enslaved Africans lagged behind in the present. For Dr. Franklin, this was a direct result of American slavery.

"They ought to develop some kind of modus operandi that they can do something else -- something to absolve themselves of three centuries of guilt from which they are the direct beneficiaries," he said in a 2007 interview. "How large is the black population now living in abject poverty in this country? How large is the population of blacks who have poor health? Sometimes they inherited the poor health right from their forebears who were beaten and treated like they were animals all over this country."

It is true, as opponents of reparations argue, that America's troublesome history of racial inequity was born in the past. But it is equally apparent, as John Hope Franklin insisted, that our future is defined by the ways we address its legacy in the present.

If we really seek to commemorate him, it seems to me that the best we can do is to not just pay lip service to the man. Instead we should honor him by paying homage in the form of meaningful national policy that considers the conclusion of his life work.

Bakari Kitwana is visiting scholar at Columbia College's Center for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media and co-author of the forthcoming Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era (Third World Press, 2009). He also writes for


  1. Thanks for posting this. It really highlights how ridiculous the reparations movement is.

  2. Thanks for posting your comment since it shows you have increased your knowledge about an issue that will not go away until justice is achieved. Probably you don't read a lot, but in two weeks in Geneva it will be the centerpiece of discussions at the United Nations.

  3. Hmm are you sure? I thought that the United States, Canada and the EU threatened to boycott the working sessions in Geneva unless the Israel/racism issue and the reparations for slavery issues were dropped. To my knowledge they were dropped. And for the record this was spear-headed by your boy Barack Obama.

    You're right that the issue won't go away though because black people have one thing in common: a really loud mouth. But today's educated population and stable governments will never shell out "justice" for people that weren't wronged and certainly not at the expense of people who didn't do anything wrong.

    It's good to be part of a cause though. Just don't get your hopes up.

  4. It must be pretty tough to be a white male right about now. I've noticed on my blog white guys sending emails that reflect their profound insecurity about everything. The President is Black, the head of the Republican Party is Black, the most powerful person in TV (Oprah Winfrey) is Black, highest grossing actor in the world (Will Smith) is Black, best golfer and female tennis players on earth, Black, Best surgeon, Black.

    These were all roles/positions held by white males (except for female tennis players) and I think your anxiety about Wall Street, reparations, referring to Barack as "your boy"; reflects the insecurities that most white men have. Black people persist and then achieve. You guys give up to easily and commit suicide or take guns and commit mass murders.

    Calm down and simply watch as Black achievement gets its long overdue place in the sun, limited because white males have always felt insecure about Black people, especially Black males.

  5. Well since you're going off topic instead of addressing the reality of reparations not being on the U.N. agenda because they're foolish, let me put your perception of my insecurities into perspective.

    To begin, I have no beef with the President. I don't agree with his policies, but I hope he does a good job. My amusement with your comments regarding the President are twofold. Firstly, remember that white people elected Obama. So much for insecurity. Secondly, I find it amazing that all of a sudden black people feel they can "relate" to Obama like he's one of their own. Let me remind you that some black guy deposited his semen in a white woman then split the scene after a couple of years like most black fathers do. Then from that point he was reared by a white family and was instilled with white values. Then he goes to top schools like white people do. So he marries a black educated woman, declares himself "black" and all of you black folks think you can relate. Jesse Jackson, as ignorant as he is, was right when he asked, "Is he black enough?" No he's not. The only black in him is his love of basketball, his love for black women, and his Chrysler 300C (the black cookie-cutter car of choice). Other than that he's about as white as he can be. Those are the facts. But it doesn't really matter. He's American.

    As for the Republican chair, it's pretty obvious that he was only appointed because he has a black face so the Republican attacks on Democrats during the Obama administration don't totally isolate the minority vote they'll need in later elections. Learn to read the tea leaves. Politics is a complex machine.

    As far as Oprah, the sports figures, and actors- big deal.

    Instead you should really celebrate the many black people in white collar employment in corporate America. Those are the folks that earned it and do a good job. And as far as whites being insecure about it, you're pretty far off base. White people hired them.

    I find you racist blacks funny. You focus all of your energy on white people who are indifferent to you guys while not noticing the rapidly growing hispanic population that utterly hates you all. Your journey back to oppression is just a few generations away. But keep focused on those reparations!

  6. OMG, Chawles, I seem to have hit a nerve. Methinks the white boy doth protest to much. LOL. It *really* is laughable when white folks take credit for electing Obama, because, most assuredly, had not Blackfolk voted *en masse* for him, your boy Muckain would have won. But, as you and I both know, taking credit for electing a president is an indoor sport. Ask the white boys, soccer Moms, Blackfolk and independents. In that sense, it's a moot question.

    Secondly, Blackpeople have long ago peeped white boys like yourself who feign that they are "tolerant" but ooze the pus of their deep seated hatred and contempt for Blackfolk. I decided to post it because it will stand as a partial proof of how deceitful, illogical and small the thinking of whites are over so many issues they have little understanding about.

    The one thing I *do* agree with you about is Michael "buckdancin'" Steele. His appointment as RNC Chair, just shows you how pathetically naive the Republican Party is to think that Blackpeople would entertain the notion of shifting parties because of a Blackface.

    Finally, there's nothing new about your "attack" on Obama (((sigh))). We've heard it all before, and snicker at how white boys like you try to discredit his racial identity. Read his *first* book, not his last, and you will see how he really feels about things that would probably make you angrier than you are right now about your increasing loss of privilege.

    Meanwhile, write me after reparations payments get even bigger than the ones that Wachovia and JP Morgan have *already* paid. Didn't know about that did you?