At its January meeting, the First Church Diversity Team discussed an article written by Drew Gilpin Faust in the December 17 issue of the New York Times Review of Books entitled “John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America.”
Franklin (1915-2009) was an African-American historian who did groundbreaking work on the history of slavery in the United States which resulted in his book From Slavery to Freedom. Faust says this about Franklin: “…no one has done more to delineate the contours of that shameful legacy and to insist upon its importance to America’s present and future.”
Faust cites the rigor of Franklin’s work. “Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts—facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered.”
Faust goes on to describe two other contemporary intellectuals who are also lifting up the importance of reexamining the history of slavery and the way that is still powerfully affecting the present moment. Both were influenced by Franklin’s work.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of Between the World and Me, has grounded his work in a broad understanding of the history of slavery: “I could not have understood 20th-century discrimination without understanding its 19th-century manifestations.…slavery was not ‘ancillary to American history’ but ‘foundational.’”
Bryan Stevenson is the Director of the Equal Justice Institute and is also actively involved in lifting up the truth about slavery in the United States. Faust says, “In a TED Talk that has been viewed more than two and a half million times, in a best-selling book, Just Mercy, and in a life dedicated to the pursuit of equal justice, Stevenson has joined in summoning history to the rescue. Before the Civil War, we as a nation created a narrative of racial difference to legitimize slavery, he explains, and we convinced ourselves of its truth. As a result, instead of genuinely ending slavery, we helped it evolve into a succession of new forms of unfreedom, culminating in today’s mass incarceration.”
In its discussion, the Diversity Team affirmed the need to carefully reexamine the history of slavery and the ways that policies and institutions have sustained inequality since slavery was abolished. Facing the truth of our country’s past based on accurate history and reconciling to it is crucial to the current struggle for racial equity and justice. Using Toni Battle’s words we must hear the “counterstory.”