REPRINT Issue 017
UCLA Professor Walter Allen Examines Impact and Legacy of Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier
Reprint from 2007 Quest Magazine, a previous publication of the Howard University Graduate School
UCLA Professor Walter Allen, Ph.D., delivered a major lecture on the legacy and impact of sociology scholar E. Franklin Frazier on Howard University and the African American family in the U.S. on April 23, 2007 in conjunction with the Graduate School's year-long celebration of 50 years since awarding its first doctoral degree. HUGS Editor Gwen Bethea, interviewed Dr. Allen who reflected on some of the major contributions of Frazier
Bethea: E. Franklin Frazier graduated from Howard with honors in 1916. He was a scholar who pursued Latin, Greek, German and mathematics, before later earning a master's degree in 1920 from the New York School of Social Work (later Columbia University School of Social Work). What do you think persuaded Frazier to change his focus to sociology?
Allen: Frazier studied and admired the scholarly work and career of the extraordinary scholar W. E. B. Du Bois. As such I believe Frazier in many respects patterned his career after that of Du Bois. Early in his career Du Bois pursued study in the Classics and stressed the application of empirical science to the solution of social problems that especially plagued Black Americans. Ultimately of course Du Bois studied sociology in Germany and helped to found and establish the discipline in the U.S. Frazier was well aware of Du Bois' career trajectory, so it is not happenstance that Frazier's own career evolution paralleled Du Bois' so closely.
Bethea: Would you please discuss Frazier's early thoughts about "the negro family" in the United States and how these concepts either are or not relevant to the African American family today?
Allen: E. Franklin Frazier's early theory and empirical research on "the Negro Family" represented an important advance in the study of family and community life in American sociology. Frazier recognized the importance of locating family in socio-economic, historical and cultural contexts in order to best understand family structure, values and functioning. His work examined the myriad of family circumstances, types and outcomes among Black families, essentially linking these to prevailing opportunity structures and family traditions. As such, Frazier's research on Black families laid the groundwork for important, influential studies of Black family, youth and community from scholars such as Andrew Billingsley, Joyce Ladner, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William Julius Wilson. Interestingly both Billingsley and Ladner have roots at Howard University.
Bethea: Why was his book, The Negro Family in Chicago, such an important work in 1939 when it was published?
Allen: This book was important as a systematic, empirical study of Black family and community life. These topics had previously been grossly ignored and misunderstood in the social science literature. Indeed, Frazier's study was the most serious, thoughtful and balanced empirical exploration of "Negro families" since W. E. B. Du Bois' The Philadelphia Negro. Frazier's study also extended "The Chicago School" of sociology to consider Black families and communities. Perhaps most importantly, Frazier's book portrayed how Black families and communities struggled valiantly - and most often successfully-- against heavy racial oppression, producing a rich culture, strong institutions and high achieving individuals. At the same time he was unblinking in recognizing the negative, sometimes devastating consequences for individuals, families and communities of living under American racial apartheid. Put simply, his book emphasized how "Negro Families" were both products and architects of their social environment.
Bethea: Would you describe the nature and controversy around his book, Black Bourgeoisie?
Allen: Black Bourgeoisie offered a scathing critique of middle-class Blacks in America. The book challenged this affluent, privileged, conspicuously consuming group to a deep soul- searching. In often blunt, angry language Frazier challenged the Black middle class to reject simple-minded imitation of white middle- class culture to create/ emphasize/ embrace authentic Black culture. Consistent with Du Bois' notions of a "Talented Tenth" Frazier said the Black elite must fulfill the obligations of uplifting and improving the plight of the majority of disenfranchised, impoverished Blacks who were denied educational, economic, housing, political opportunities. While educational and economic capital buffered the Black elite from the worst of Jim Crow racial segregation, American apartheid denied the majority of Black Americans all opportunity and even simple human dignity. In Frazier's opinion Black elites should not be comfortable in their privilege and distance themselves from the large Black community, but instead were obligated to lead the struggle for change.
Bethea: What was the nature of his attack on the older generations who were members of the NAACP?
Allen: Frazier critiqued them for accommodation to the American system of Jim Crow racial segregation and for not aggressively, creatively or effectively challenging the status quo. He faulted many for seeking personal comfort and safety instead of committing to progressive change in the circumstances of Black and poor Americans.
Bethea: What were his major contributions at Howard University and how did he feel about the environment of black colleges, including Howard?
Allen: E. Franklin Frazier was committed to Howard University and valued the unique contributions this institution had made and would make in future. He understood the unique roles Howard University and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities had to play as nurturers of young Black minds, producers of important scholarship and concrete, institutional representations of Black excellence, accomplishment and potential.
Bethea: Can you describe Frazier's life in Brazil? How was it relevant to his work?
Allen: Frazier's scholarship was unfailingly comparative in focus. As he studied Black families and communities in the U.S. he did so with careful attention to how these families varied in structure, values, functions and outcomes across different circumstances/ characteristics. Moreover, Frazier was always outward looking and international in his perspectives, one sees clear evidence of influence on his work by European scholars like Karl Marx and Max Weber. In this respect I suspect he consciously patterned himself after W. E. B. Du Bois who was a decidedly international scholar of race and the African Diaspora. Frazier's life in Brazil allowed him to experience and to empirically investigate how the definitions, conditions, cultural patterns and socio- economic circumstances of race differed from - and paralleled - those in the U.S.
Bethea: Would you please recount how Frazier became such a widely respected scholar and how he rose to such prominence in the American Sociological Society (later named American Sociological Association), becoming its president in 1948?
Allen: The sheer brilliance and volume of E. Franklin Frazier's scholarship propelled his recognition and rise in the American Sociological Association. Although Frazier was named President of ASA he never was given a full- fledged academic appointment to the Sociology faculty at the University of Chicago, even though he earned his doctorate in the department and was one of the most widely known contributors to "The Chicago School" of sociology. Ironically, as was true with his model and mentor W. E. B. Du Bois, American racism impeded full recognition of E. Franklin Frazier's scholarly contributions to sociology.
Bethea: Can you describe the relationship between Frazier and Du Bois, his mentor?
Allen: As I have noted, Frazier patterned his career and research interests after those of W. E. B. Du Bois. There is also ample evidence of correspondence and meetings between these scholars. For certain Du Bois registered a profound intellectual imprint on Frazier as a scholar, theorist, research and advocate for progressive social change.
Bethea: What was the nature of his positions and the ensuing debate on the impact of slavery on the Black family?
Allen: Frazier's research emphasized the impact of contemporary social forces such as economic deprivation, racial discrimination, substandard housing, concentrated social pathology and blocked opportunities on Black families and communities. He did not deny the historical importance of slavery as a social fact which shaped Black families, but instead sought to uncover contemporary influences. In my view this was consistent with his efforts to identify factors which social policy could change in order to improve the circumstances of Black communities and families.
Bethea: What would you consider to be the most important contribution of E. Franklin Frazier in general?
Allen: In my opinion E. Franklin Frazier's most important contributions were to the study of race, social history, community organization and family life. His body of scholarship demonstrated how these factors intersect to shape individual, group, institutional, community and national outcomes. His work was also important for demonstrating that sociological theory and research could inform progressive social change.
Bethea: Are there applications today to the socio-cultural environment of the African American community, nationally and globally?
Allen: The most important application reminds us of the necessity to study these communities empirically in social context with careful attention to history, economics, politics and values as we seek to better understand the combination of unique and shared features that define organized community life across the African Diaspora.
Bethea: How specifically did he change teaching and learning in sociology and other disciplines?
Allen: Frazier's work broadened the sociological paradigm to include greater emphasis on social policy and broadened the social work paradigm to include greater emphasis on empirical social research. His work broke down the forced, false separation in both disciplines between research, policy and practice. In a related sense he brought the study of African American community life into the mainstream of the social behavioral sciences, insisting that to fully understand American life one must understand Black communities and Black people for the integral roles we have played (and play) in shaping the "American Story."
Bethea: Finally, what has been the influence of E. Franklin Frazier on your own life and research as a sociology scholar?
Allen: E. Franklin Frazier has exerted profound influence on me as a person, intellectual, scholar and sociologist. My encounters with his writings as an undergraduate excited my imagination and helped commit me to a career in sociology. I have unabashedly patterned my career interests after Frazier's and in sizeable degree sought to follow his career pathways (e.g., I am also a University of Chicago Ph.D. in sociology). Following his footsteps, my research interests include Black families, Black communities, Black youth and Black educational achievement domestically as well as internationally. I strive to produce theoretically rich, empirically rigorous research that informs positive social change for these populations. Of course even as I strive after Frazier's model I am painfully aware of falling short, he was a scholar of such tremendous range, depth, nuance and influence (e.g., linguist, mathematician, sociologist) that I can only marvel and hope to emulate-- but not match his accomplishments.
Bethea: Thank you.
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