[A Rick Horowitz Commentary, from Milwaukee Public Television’s “InterCHANGE”]
"When big names in academia die, the news doesn't usually make it onto the networks' evening newscasts, or onto the front pages of major newspapers. But it did when the historian John Hope Franklin died this week at the age of 94.
“Rick Horowitz has read plenty about Dr. Franklin’s distinguished career and extraordinary accomplishments -- but it was a couple of brief anecdotes that may have made the deepest impression. Rick?”
Imagine you’re a towering figure in the intellectual life of your country. You helped fill a yawning gap in American historical scholarship. Almost single-handedly, you created and gave heft to a new academic discipline, studying the role of black people in the American experience.
You did some of the research that helped the United States Supreme Court put the first large cracks in the wall of legal segregation..
You were the first of your race -- the first Negro -- to be department chair at a majority-white college. You’ll go on to receive well over one hundred honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the nation.
And now you’re in Washington, about to receive one of the highest honors of all: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You’ll be getting the medal tomorrow, so tonight you’re hosting a party at your club in Washington.
And while you’re standing there, some woman you don’t know comes up to you and puts a slip of paper in your hand and expects you to go get her coat.
Another time -- in a hotel this time -- a man hands you his car keys and expects you to fetch his car.
“I patiently explained to him,” Dr. Franklin said later, “that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was. And, in any case, I was retired.”
So tell me: Which is the harder stretch? Imagining yourself winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Or -- if your skin is roughly the same color as mine -- imagining yourself ever being mistaken for a coat-check clerk or a bellman?
“I very much doubt, Mr. Doe, that you have had such experiences.” Dr. Franklin once spoke those words to an imaginary white reader, trying to explain what white people still find nearly impossible to grasp.
“Your race,” he went on, “and your consequent position of power and privilege have doubtless immunized you from the experiences that a black person confronts daily, regardless of his age, education, position or station in life."
“The experiences that a black person confronts daily.”
John Hope Franklin was 90 at the time.
Those are a lot of days.
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Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.