Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Passage of Giants: John Hope Franklin, Ronald Takaki, Philip Curtin

We lost three of our most influential historians this spring: John Hope Franklin (died March 25th, aged 94), Ronald Takaki (died May 26, aged 70), and Philip Curtin (died June 4th, aged 87).

Franklin was one of our most important public intellectuals, in the mold of W.E.B. Du Bois. Franklin held an endowed professorship at Duke University, having been central to the emergence of African-American historical scholarship beginning with his landmark 1947 study, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans.

He was a key adviser to Thurgood Marshall on the Brown v. Board of Education case, and he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King at Montgomery in 1965. He headed President Clinton's national advisory board on race in 1997.

"The specter of color is apparent even when it goes unmentioned," he wrote in The Color Line: Legacy for the 21st Century (1994), "And it is all too often the unseen force that influences public policy as well as private relationships."

For more, click here.

Takaki pioneered ethnic studies, starting with his 1972 course at the University of California-Berkeley. Two of his books are especially widely used in college courses and have had great impact: Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-century America (1979), and A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993).

Don T. Nakanishi (Director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center) is quoted in the Los Angeles Times obituary of Takaki: "Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America's multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and around the world."

For more, click here.

Curtin helped create the modern field of African studies in the U.S.A., with his colleague Jan Vansina at the University of Wisconsin. His The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969) is one of the most important books in this field.

Moving to the Johns Hopkins University, Curtin became (in the words of Hopkins history department chair William Rowe) "a proselytizer for a kind of world history that treated every human society with equal dignity and equal weight."

I had the privilege of listening to Professor Curtin around the seminar table on many occasions and can vouch for Professor Rowe's characterization. One of the books in my personal library to which I return most often is Curtin's Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (1984). He called it "somewhat unorthodox...historical economic anthropology is as convenient a label as any." He insisted that the "world" in "world history" avoid Western ethnocentric approaches.

He captured the world's complexities and independencies of culture, as well as its underlying similarities, with a vast but succinct erudition. For instance, from Cross-Cultural Trade:

"...the office of wakil al-tujjar [in Cairo]...Some wakil also owned and operated funduq or lodging houses for foreign merchants, recalling the combined functions of the landlord-brokers of West Africa" (page 113).

"As early as 1519, the Ethiopian court at Gondar sent an Armenian envoy to Portugal, by way of the Portuguese posts in India" (page 130).

For more, click here.

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