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In less than a year the battle for truth has lost three of its most innovative and stalwart voices, historians John Hope Franklin, Ivan Van Sertima and Howard Zinn. Each challenged aspects of the cheerfully bigoted narrative that has passed for history in schools, colleges, texts and the media. Each created works that made history by awakening millions of fellow citizens to a new host of heroic men and women whose daring contributions had been shamefully ignored.
As they gathered their documentation, Franklin, Van Sertima and Zinn confronted a lily-white, elite establishment comfortable with racism, economic injustice, and imperialism – or willing to cast them as forms of progress. Indeed, the books of these innovative scholars amounted to a vast underground railroad of treacherous knowledge. Ivan Van Sertima wrote during a time when Arnold Toynbee led the world’s leading scholars in claiming Africans made no contribution to civilization, its science or art, none, zero. Van Sertima cited sources beginning with Columbus to prove an African presence in America before 1492 — exploding a pivotal self-serving Caucasian myth. Then he went on to detail African contributions to global science.
John Hope Franklin wrote in a time when Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Eliot Morison, Pulitzer Prize historians, used their widely used college text, The Growth of the American Republic, to describe slavery in this hideous way. “As for Sambo . . . he suffered less than any other class in the South from its ‘peculiar institution.’”
Franklin faced a citizenry schooled on notions that people of African decent really benefited from slavery and had no history worth recounting. His response was to painstakingly detail how people of African descent contributed substantially to each stage of America’s economic and democratic growth.
Howard Zinn broadened the battle when he claimed conventional U.S. texts and school courses failed by celebrating wars, legislation, Presidents, generals and captains of industry. He stood history back on its feet when he told on how masses of American women and men, people of color and poor whites built the country first as slaves and indentured servants, and then as mill hands, assembly line workers and maids. He further antagonized traditional scholars by rejoicing in the disobedience of slave rebels, union organizers and radical civil rights and anti-war agitators. He found dissidents to be America’s real patriots and democrats — not the George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons and Andrew Jacksons who talked of liberty while they traded in slaves, and sent posses after those who escaped.
Proceeding from different angles, Franklin, Van Sertima and Zinn established that much history is a false tale, a patriotic pabulum designed to white wash past crimes, burnish traditional heroes and promote conformity. Each joined demonstrations for causes dear to their historical understanding.
The documents unearthed by Franklin, Van Sertima and Zinn illuminated the world, moved mountains and lifted people who had been told their ancestors never amounted to much. Though these truth-tellers will be sorely missed, their deep love of humanity and extraordinary works will live as long as people seek to examine the past as a way to chart the future.
I found of the three men to be delightful, supportive friends; their influence and personal interest proved an enormous benefit to my work. I was blessed to ride on their shoulders, and lucky enough to tell each of my love for them, their good humor and crusading works.
WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His new, revised edition of The Black West [Harlem Moon/Random House, 2005] also includes information on the Philippine occupation, and can now be found in bookstores. He can be reached through his website: www.williamlkatz.com