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Raymond Arsenault

A MASTER OF NUANCE

John Hope Franklin, who died last month at the age of 94, was an extraordinary teacher and scholar. During a long and distinguished career, he amassed an incomparable record, training thousands of students, delivering hundreds of public lectures and addresses, and researching and writing scores of important articles and books, including the seminal work of African-American history, From Slavery to Freedom, which has sold more than 4 million copies since its initial publication in 1947. His many honors include more than 140 honorary degrees, the Abraham Lincoln Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Tall and ramrod straight, even in his later years, he literally and figuratively lived a large life, overcoming huge obstacles and tackling the most vexing historical issues of his time: the unrealized promises of emancipation and democracy, the persistence of racial injustice and economic inequality, and the proliferation of violence and imperial ambition in the modern world.

Yet, as any of his many friends and colleagues would be quick to point out, grand triumphs and challenges do not tell the whole story of John Hope Franklin. For me the true measure of the man resided in the "small" things, the subtleties of kindness and integrity that testified to his uncommon grace and generous spirit. The right word, the perfect gesture, the determination to acknowledge the overlooked and the unappreciated, the unerring ability to bring balance and harmony to any situation — these are the gifts that set him apart from the rest of us. This mastery of nuance and attention to detail permeated all aspects of his life, from his carefully rendered scholarship to the simplest acts of courtesy and friendship.

It could even be found, I would argue, in his approach to his favorite avocation: growing orchids. Take, for example, his special fondness for the Equitant Oncidium, one of the smallest of orchids. He loved all orchids, of course, including the flashiest of Phalaenopses and Cattleyas. But as he made his way through a greenhouse, he inevitably gravitated to the hanging pots of diminutive but brightly colored Equitants. He was drawn to them, I suspect, in the same way that he was drawn to small children or to neglected figures of the past, as a nurturing friend giving his closest attention to those who need it most. As he once told me, Equitants, like all orchids, bloom, in part, because they are deprived of water. In fact, the most beautiful blossoms sometimes emerge when a plant is straining on the hydrological margins of life. I like to think that this strange biological truth serves as a metaphor for John Hope himself — a man who turned the challenges of Jim Crow and a hardscrabble Oklahoma boyhood into the raw materials of a creative and fulfilling life. In a broader sense, the biological phenomenon of marginality breeding creativity doubles as a metaphor for the African-American experience itself — the saga of cultural endurance and innovation that he recounted so eloquently for nearly three quarters of a century.

Reflecting back on his annual visits to St. Petersburg, I am convinced that John Hope loved his adopted winter home of St. Petersburg in much the same way, cherishing the idiosyncracies and intimacies of his favorite "overgrown village." After spending most of his adult life in Washington, Brooklyn and Chicago, he delighted in St. Petersburg's unhurried pace, its unabashed sense of place, and its unique mix of regional cultures and subtropical kitsch. He ventured southward each winter primarily to relax and enjoy the warmth of the Florida sun.

But he did much more than bask in the sunshine. Sharing his intellectual gifts in scores of public settings over the years, he inspired and nurtured a community of citizen scholars both inside and outside the academy. Here, as in the wider world, he provided a model of unflinching intellectual honesty and public service. In all the ways that matter, large and small, he left a truth-telling legacy that continues to touch the lives of those fortunate enough to have encountered one of the great minds — and hearts — of the 20th century. Peace to his glorious spirit.

Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is the author of The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America (Bloomsbury Press, 2009).

A MASTER OF NUANCE 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 6:33pm]
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