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Ernest Rice McKinney

Books in Review ...

Negro Struggle in History

(February 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 2, February 1948, p. 63.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

From Slavery to Freedom
by John Hope Franklin
Knopf, N.Y. 1947, $5.00

Franklin, a young Negro scholar who is professor of history at Howard University, is concerned primarily with the history of the Negro in the United States; but he has included chapters on the African background, on the Caribbean and Latin American, and on Canadian Negroes. The subject matter is therefore wide-ranging: from slavery and the slave trade, through the abolition movement and the Civil War, to the New Deal and wars of our day. What relation existed between the theoretical notions of the Founding Fathers and the fact of slavery? What was the relation between American slavery and the Industrial Revolution? How did the slave feel about his servitude?

The latter part of the book describes the struggle of the Negro for democratic rights, including a significant discussion of The Negro and American Imperialism. Dr. Franklin deals with the Booker Washington movement and the DuBois opposition, the Harlem Renaissance and The Negro and World Problems. The three chapters on Africa – Early Negro States of Africa, The African Way of Life, and A Cradle of Civilization – will illuminate those who believe that African Negroes had nothing to do but ramble along the coast to be picked up by slave traders.

In a brief discussion of that troublesome question, The Transplantation of African Culture, Dr. Franklin disagrees with both extreme positions: that nothing in Negro life today goes back to African backgrounds (Renter and Woodson) and that there remains a distinct, very marked element of the African background (Herskovits). In Franklin’s opinion there unquestionably is some survival (he mentions the words yam, goober, canoe, banjo as well as certain folktale elements and religious cult practices) but he adds that these manifestations are certainly not prominent in the U.S,: “The survival of varying degrees of African culture in America ... merely points up the fact that he came out of an experience that was sufficiently entrenched to make possible the persistence of some customs and traditions.” This will not satisfy either Woodson or Herskovits, who, in the opinion of this reviewer, are something less than scientific and somewhat romantic in their approach.

There is space only for a few details about this excellent book. Dr. Franklin writes with proper restraint and caution but as a rule does not sacrifice clarity nor fail to take strides. For instance, he emphasizes that Negroes opposed all colonization schemes, that the free Negroes resisted deportation, and that “the great majority of Negroes who went to Africa were from the slaveholding states.” He understands that “Negroes on the lower social and economic levels were inclined to regard” the NAACP and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation “as the agencies of upper-class Negroes and liberal whites who failed to join hands with them in their efforts to rise.” Many went to the Garvey movement but “’Negro Zionism’ was doomed to failure. Regardless of how dissatisfied Negroes were with conditions in the United States they were unwilling in the twenties, as their forebears had been a century earlier, to undertake the uncertain task of redeeming Africa.”

On Booker Washington he writes: “The particular type of industrial education which Washington emphasized ... was outmoded at the time he enunciated it ... He did not seem to grasp fully the effect of the Industrial Revolution ... many of the occupations which Washington was urging Negroes to enter were disappearing almost altogether.” Franklin deals also with the Negro and the Populist Party in the South – far from adequately, but this subject is usually ignored completely by Negro authors.

There is some careless writing in the book. On the Haitian events of 1915 we read (page 348): “As for the part of the United States, it is enough to say that the long period of disorder, debt, and political deterioration led to the occupation by the United States Marines in 1915 ...” There is ample evidence to demonstrate that this was not the real reason for the occupation of this sovereign and independent republic by U.S. imperialism. On the Knights of Labor in 1886 he writes: “This organization was losing ground, however, because of the infiltration of radical foreign elements and the Haymarket Square riots in 1886.” (Page 394) But the Knights began to lose out because they were not suited to the times and could not counter the rival AFL then emerging with its doctrine of wage consciousness. Like Booker Washington they did not understand the Industrial Revolution. It was not therefore the “unequivocal stand” of the Knights “on the race question” which prevented “the expansion of the organization.”

There are other examples of defects in the book. There is insufficient emphasis on the importance of the Negro’s trend into the trade-union movement, particularly during the past twelve years and particularly into the CIO, with the consequent tremendous social, political and economic significance for the Negroes as a group.

But the outstanding feature of Dr. Franklin’s book, aside from its general excellence as a source of much needed information, is its sound scholarship. He is not one of those writers about and for Negroes who apparently think that all they need is good intentions, a pro-Negro attitude, and a good polemical or apologetical style. From Slavery to Freedom is the result of genuine historical research; it is not a mere recording of “the progress the Negro has made since emancipation.” He has done what no other contemporary Negro historian has done, with the exception of DuBois in parts of Black Reconstruction: he has recognized that the history of the Negro is part and parcel of the total history of the country, an integral part of the political, social and economic growth of the nation. His book should be read by everyone who thinks he knows something about the Negro.

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