Books: May-June 2006

June 1, 2006

Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin By John Hope Franklin Hon. '98

Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin
By John Hope Franklin Hon. '98. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. 416 pages. $25.00.

For African Americans, John Hope Franklin, as our foremost historian, provides in his book, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin, a griot's gaze of American racial segregation, economic exploitation, and diabolical denigration of black people in the twentieth century. To the world, Franklin's life renders a regal response to such unearned suffering.

Franklin, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of history, is to the American academy what W.E.B. Du Bois was to cultural consciousness for people of color. Like Du Bois, Franklin, born into a professionally trained family, viewed life through the dual consciousness of high academic achievements, while remaining nonetheless keenly aware of the social mores and racial restrictions imposed by the American government on Negroes, as African Americans were called in his early life. He dreamed past a low ceiling in life.

The most salient lesson to be gleaned from Mirror to America is that academic preparation mitigates the pessimism that corrodes those of lesser perseverance. Valedictorian of his high-school class, Franklin received excellent training, not only from his parents at home but also--like Du Bois--from Fisk University, a historically black institution, and from Harvard University, where he earned his Ph.D. As did many black people before him, Franklin academically armored himself and used the weapon of wisdom to lift himself up where he belonged--on the world scholarship stage. However, in his ascension to renowned scholar, he demonstrated his duty to those left behind the wall of opportunity, whether students or professional colleagues.

By chronicling the absurdity of racial bigotry in this nation, Franklin sets a template of temperance for generations to come on the art of maintaining personal rationality amidst state-sponsored irrationality. For example, at the age of six he was physically taken off a train for the "crime" of sitting in a seat reserved by law for whites. Likewise, when he was a twelve-year-old Boy Scout, he sought to carry out the Scout Oath by assisting an elderly and blind white woman across the street, only to be humiliated by her on the basis of his race. When confronted with bigotry on the basis of race, he displayed amazing grace.

Mirror to America is a testimony to Franklin as a witness to American history and the apartheid legal system that it spawned. From his youthful days during World War I, to surviving the domestic terrorism of Jim Crow mobs and the legal effect of Jim Crow, Esq., John Hope Franklin went from academic observer to expert witness for attorney Thurgood Marshall in the seminal legal case of the twentieth century--Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. But his witness did not stop there; he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to march with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to state his case in action for full voting rights for all Americans, regardless of racial ancestry. By doing so, Franklin blazed a new trail of activism for those isolated in the ivory tower of academe.

His singular status in academe can also be correlated with that of the prolific public-policy legislator Adam Clayton Powell and with King. However, such a comparison reveals the difference in philosophy concerning the effectiveness of new legislation compared with the hearts of humanity. With respect to social change, Franklin espouses the belief that the power of women and men morally moved to embrace all people as equals trumps the passage of legislation. Conversely, I agree with the philosophy of Powell and King that, whereas we live in our faith, we live under the law, and for much of mankind morally based legislation molds minds. We can look no further than landmark civil-rights legislation--i.e., the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The impact of major legislation helped to diminish heartfelt racial bigotry via public policy.

Franklin's writing style in Mirror to America mirrors his demeanor--understated but undeniably brilliant. The book is a historical hallway through the annals of the most revolutionary century in American history. His views are not merely historic reflection, but mirror many of today's philosophical battles in American thought--for example, Franklin's view that "diversity" alone is less important than equity and parity. After all, diversity is an unquantifiable and amorphous term, whereas equity and parity are measurable. The policy of leading universities to "diversify" their faculties pales in comparison with the question of whether there is equity and parity in recruitment and retention of nonwhite professors.

The book is also a testament to Franklin's parents' provision of an atmosphere that encouraged his character, intelligence, and duty to help others, as well as a model for today's parents. Whereas most American parents today are not professionally trained--his father was a lawyer, his mother, a librarian--they can actively seek to reclaim our youth by providing access to books, public libraries, and scholarships. A parent in 2006 does not have to be trained as a lawyer to demand equal protection under law and equal opportunity for his or her children. Mirror to America underscores the reality that the difference between a looking glass and a window is that one reflects self and the other provides a view of the world. Franklin demonstrated a view of the world predicated on seeing beyond self and accepting his godly duty to others. He and his autobiography reflect that beyond color and beyond culture is the lofty plateau of character and courage. Mirror and the man, John Hope Franklin, are full of life lessons on both.


Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America By Thomas J. Ferraro

Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America
By Thomas J. Ferraro.
New York University Press, 2005. 272 pages. $21.00, paper.

The essence of Thomas J. Ferraro's Feeling Italian: The Art of Ethnicity in America can be found in a standup routine by comedian Nick diPaolo. "Even my people, the Italians, are complaining about profiling," DiPaolo said on the TV talk show Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. "They don't like the way they're portrayed on The Sopranos. I love the way we're portrayed on The Sopranos. If you want to complain about the way Italians are portrayed on TV, let's start with those Olive Garden commercials."

Ferraro, a professor of English at Duke, also appears to like The Sopranos. In Feeling Italian, he praises the mood the show conveys and its refusal to romanticize Italian-American culture. And, in a series of essays, he asks the reader to examine with him other narratives that have led not just Italian Americans, but many Americans, to tap into what it means to feel Italian.

Ferraro proves an able storyteller. In an examination of Joseph Stella's early-twentieth-century paintings of New York, he delves into the painter's fascination with the immigrant's wide-eyed view of this brave new city. Stella's work reveals what many of those immigrants had to confront and reconcile as they left the comparatively primitive world of rural Southern Italy for what must have seemed like a new world dreamt up by a science-fiction writer.

In Stella's 1919 painting of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, Ferraro observes that the artist "had to come to terms with Manhattan's inferno-like support system--the mills and refineries and wastelands we now see from the Jersey Turnpike, or in the opening credit sequence of The Sopranos--before he could envision the city's exhilarating, luminescent, and prophetic public face, as if a beautiful terror were the cost of modernity's terrible beauty, which indeed it is." Passages like these are not only revelatory. They also display Ferraro's ability to make his essays accessible to the nonacademic reader even when they take on an analytical quality. He always keeps his eye on quotidian and pop culture, cleverly connecting the dots from Dante to Bada Bing.

In another part of the book, Ferraro introduces us to a short story, "Christ in Concrete," written by an unemployed bricklayer named Pietro di Donato and published in Esquire in 1937. "Christ in Concrete" is a semi-autobiographical tale that follows Geremio, the foreman of a bricklaying crew, as his boss pressures him to ignore building codes. On Good Friday, the wall Geremio and his workers are raising suddenly collapses, and they are killed. Ferraro's explicacione di texte focuses on the payoff in di Donato's prose. Ferraro reminds us what di Donato was asking us to do: to understand what it was like to "feel like an Italian laborer, a laborer who spoke and in some sense still lived in an Italian dialect but worked for the American construction industry, literally building capitalism's infrastructure."

But the most compelling tale Ferraro recounts is the true story of Maria Barbella. It is a tale of omerta and shows the roots of Italian honor that the mass media typically delivers as caricature at best.

Maria Barbella came to America from "the mountainous anklebone of southern Italy," Ferraro writes. Immigrants transplanted their village culture when they settled in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Hell's Kitchen. In 1895, young Barbella was a seamstress in a sweatshop. A man named Domenico Cataldo seduced her but refused to marry her. Dishonored, she felt she could not go on unless she became Cataldo's wife--or reclaimed her honor.

She tracked down Cataldo in a bar on 13th Street and killed him using a straight razor. Barbella was tried--the media's sensational treatment of the trial rivals the feeding frenzy that characterized the O.J. Simpson case--and sentenced to death. Had her sentence not later been overturned, she would have been the first woman in U.S. history to die in the electric chair. And that's only half the story. I don't want to give away the rest, but suffice it to say that Barbella's story alone is worth the price of admission to Feeling Italian.

With the stories of Maria Barbella and Joseph Stella and even the fiction of Pietro di Donato, Ferraro has dug up narratives that have been free-floating in American history. The media and popular culture have embroidered many of those narratives to the point that they are now unrecognizable. Ferraro takes us back to the source material and, in doing so, strips away the caricature of embellishment. Implicitly, Ferraro asks us all to visit our own ethnic narratives and dramas and figure out how we ultimately want to be portrayed.

The lesson is that each of us must choose the narratives carefully: You can let the Olive Garden sum you up; or, you can, like Ferraro, remind yourself that it's just another version of mass-culture reductivism and stereotyping. Being Italian (or Polish or Jewish or African American), Ferraro reminds us, is not about the all-you-can eat breadsticks.