Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Vincent Harding and Lerone Bennett

Last week I had the honor and pleasure of hearing my friend Vincent Harding and Lerone Bennett speak in Richmond twice. Once was at the Virginia Theological Union whose campus we visited. James Kinney, the Dean, showed us around. Stranger as I am to the black colleges of the South, forged in the blood and struggle for freedom of the Civil War, what he showed us was very striking. As we walked across the beautifully kept campus, Kinney greeted the workers by name and talked with them (this is something I also do, but is surprisingly uncommon). There is a community here which is unusual.

The school was founded in 1865. It was on the site of the Lumpkin Plantation, known as Devil’s Acre, where slaves were imprisoned and whipped. The owner, a cruel man, fell in love with and married Mary Lumpkin, who had been a slave and left her the property. In 1865, in a mirror of the Civil War at its conclusion, Devil’s Acre, was transformed by her gift into the Baptist Freedom School, the whipping posts into lecturns...

One can see that transformation on the stained glass in the cathedral (perhaps the most meaningful stained glass in a church I have ever encountered…).

Vincent emphasizes the search for education among blacks. There is a River tells the story of a woman, at the end of the Civil War, going out to wash clothes, propping up a book, working to read...

Slavery treats human beings as less than human (the slave-owners, as Martin Luther King underlines, have distorted their souls, to be that inhuman being who lives off another with just as good a claim to humanity as the predator). It has been, as Vincent’s beautiful and scholarly book celebrates, a long struggle to be recognized, to feel oneself fully human. Truths long known in the black community rarely make their way to the corporate newspapers or professional associations of scholars. There was a particularly moving celebration here in just a few words of Fred Shuttlesworth, Derrick Bell and Troy Davis...

Feeling that one is empowered to speak is difficult for men and women who have experienced such denial (that one is always “standing on tiptoe,” as Dr. King says in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail). And the speech, when the words come, is often beautiful: powerful and empowering.

Black colleges, like the Virginia Union Theological Seminary, have often made this possible in a way that white schools do not. They reflect, in general, a loyalty to community which the goal of ascending into an alien (and domineering) elite does not (of course, some have as the beginning of Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration makes amusingly clear). Integration in this society is still, outside the military and the White House, a hope more than a reality. In contrast, the feeling of community in the Seminary (and in the meeting I attended about Vincent’s book) is palpable.

Lerone Bennett has long been one of my heroes. I used to circulate his essay “The Road not Taken" for the International Committee against Racism, and also have taught it. Bennett sketches indelibly how the English colonizers pitted white indentured servants, black slaves and Native Americans against each other – the old policy of divide and rule - and how the American states took these practices over. The worse (or genocidal) subordination of blacks and Native Americans also hurts whites. This is as profound a point to this moment as it was when Lerone wrote it down. On the second panel, Vincent noted Lerone’s humility. Vincent had learned, he pointed out, as many of us have, from Before the Mayflower.

Lerone spoke to the students of coming out of Mississippi (the worst place in the United States at the time). Trying to find a way out, he learned what going to Morehouse meant, and determined to be a "Morehouse man." He had a battle with his mother about it: "there isn't the money for that." But they resolved it.

For those outside this community of struggle, it may be hard to realize the role that black colleges have played in the emergence and refinement of voices, speaking truth in an American waste land (Vincent spoke pointedly on Langston Hughes’s theme: America never was America to me, and the vow Hughes swore, still to be realized: America will be.

Lerone had gone to school with Martin Luther King (King was a year ahead of him). He told the story of how King had not believed that the ministry was a place of sufficient intellectual substance, that perhaps he could find his way more easily in the law. But in the black community, in the fierce standing up against racism, ministry has played a central role. King’s elders at Morehouse (particularly Benjamin Mayes), helped persuade him to go into the ministry and realize his vocation in struggle (no one could have envisioned how unique that path was). Such works as "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail," written on the back of a newspaper in his cell - transcendant words on civil disobedience repeatedly invoking Socrates that will live as long as American English is read - came out of that experience…

Vincent and Lerone spoke as elders, inviting, as Vincent uniquely, persistently and democratically does, the voices of each into the conversation. It is a connected movement, a connected experience (“there is a river”). As one woman spoke to, it is now an even harder struggle for young ministers, women and men, to find a place.

In the conversation, Vincent emphasized how, for example, sometimes one is called to switch from what one is doing, the career one hopes to have, to pursue the struggle (something he did in going from the North with his wife and colleague, Rosemarie, to join King in Atlanta and go prepare the way for the struggles of SCLC in Albany, Georgia and other communities before King came). There was a palpable sense in this room (and in the later session on There is a River at the Marriott) of the community of blacks, of standing against the worst oppression and attempted “dehumanization” (at the later meeting, Vincent offered a wonderful self-criticism about how he had spoken, once upon a time, of slaves as dehumanized to their very human and lively descendants, and had suddenly thought to himself, these children could not have stood up if their parents had not weathered the storm, suffered what must be suffered, found ways to nurture, and fought back, that it gives the oppressor a false power to say that it is possible to dehumanize a people…).

After King was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Vincent sent out a call to young black intellectuals to drop what they were doing and come to the Institute of the Black World at the King Center of which he was the first director. Lerone, Bearnice Johnson Reagan, Sterling Stuckey, Bill Strickland and others gave up their jobs, academic positions, finishing books or poems and songs (well, perhaps some of the songs and poems got finished...), and came to forge this vibrant, first think-tank among blacks to foster activist scholarship, to keep the flame of truth and justice represented by Dr. King alive. This is the spirit that people will discover who look into and beyond the new monument in Washington. The IBW is part of the grand history of this struggle, one emerging again and again, in days as dark as days get. See here.

Lerone spoke movingly of how terrible a time this is, with mass incarceration of blacks and others. See here and here. The beloved community one must forge anew will come only from each of us finding a meaningful way to leave the beaten path (Occupy Wall Street and Washington and LA and Boston and Denver…comes to mind).

The panel at the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History the next day was stunning. Rachel Harding gave a poetic speech about her mother and father and what it was like for her and her brother to grow up with them, and find words. Bearnice Johnson Reagan, a student of Vincent’s, lifted her beautiful voice in song (perhaps the only thing that could have seamlessly moved on from Rachel), and Lerone, in his 80s, found his powerful voice to say movingly what is the force of the great scholarship and marvelous poetry, honoring many thousands gone and yet finding hope, of There is a River. Vincent read beautifully and slowly the last paragraphs about the end of the Civil War and was asked by one woman, who has devoted herself to writing about this history, to read the first paragraph which set her on her quest...

The final paragraphs are these:

"Always the blood of life, the blood of death. Knowing that more blood would be shed, they were remembering the blood streaking the waves of the Atlantic, remembering the blood on Nat Turner's dying ground, remembering the blood on the tracks of the Underground Railway, remembering the blood on a hundred thousand white hands, remembering the blood crying out from the battlegrounds of the Freedom War, blood so freely shed in that year of Jubilee, blood for the remission of sins. Many thousands gone."

"Near the close of that chaotic, brooding year, black people were remembering the past and moving forward, committing their lives to all the unfinished struggles of the river. With the crossing over just begun, with the requisites for true freedom still beyond their grasp, still beyond the vision of white America, with fierce, but needful battles just ahead, black people were celebrating their God and themselves, for a great victory had surely been won. It had been a brutal, magnificent struggle, reaching over more than three centuries, over thousands of miles, from the sunburned coasts of the homeland to the cold and dreary trenches near Petersburg, Fort Wagner, and Milliken's Bend. And they were the soldiers, their people were the soldiers, the singers, the petitioners, the creators of the new time."

"So as they sang and prayed and cried into the night, the night when slavery was officially ended in the United States, black people were celebrating themselves, honoring their forebears, holding up their children to the midnight sun, praising the mysterious, delivering God who had made it possible for them, and all who lived before them, to come so far and stand so firm in the deep red flooding of Jordan."

Vincent wrote the book, he said, to have it read aloud to all those engaged, to students, to the unemployed, to prisoners, to grannies…It is the way books once were read (or epic poems told by storytellers in the evening over fires, the Homers or the unnamed authors of Beowulf). Not so many modern books can meet such a test.

Vincent has long stood for the diverse voices and the artistic creation of the democracy. He once asked me to read some poems and speak about writing poetry to a multiracial group of young artists he was working with. He does more about calling forth each person’s history and voice than anyone I have ever met. I now begin my classes with something Vincent does – asking each person for her name, where she is from and where her maternal grandmother is from (as well as why she is in the class). This reveals the powerful river of backgrounds that flow together internationally into a meeting or a class. It resists authoritarianism and hierarchy, humanizes, invites each person to come into her own voice, be fully a participant.

But here in speaking for the black struggle, even as a struggle for emancipation, and how the community which has transcended through spirituals (and jazz) and a living religion and gorgeous music of struggle is bound together, he gave voice to a particular community. A questioner brought up the punditry’s ostensible “post-black America” of the Obama period. There is a limited truth in this (Barack is president of the empire, though the meaning of this is increasingly frayed as some of my conversations at the conference revealed). And yet it is foolish - this, with the huge caste of color in the Amerian prison/probation system. This, with a 96% unemployment rate among poor black teenagers in New York city (New York Times editorial, December 22, 2008)…

Vincent later mentioned Robinson’s Disintegration, a book which traces the dispersal of the black community into an elite, a large body of new immigrants from Africa and the Afro-Caribbean (John Bracey talked with me about how much of his African-American studies classes at U. Mass Amherst are made up of immigrants from Cape Verde and Africa; a student today spoke of 200 Africans in a community in rural Colorado) and the large body of the abandoned

The struggle of blacks in the United States is the struggle for universal freedom. No one who is a slave-owner or segregationist or benefits from the degradation of others is free (see King’s "Letter" on the distortion of the personalities and souls of such people). In so far as the country is or will be a democracy, it is lifted up for all of us by this community, this struggle, joined in and celebrated with others. These two nonviolent veterans, Lerone and Vincent, in their eighties, have battled long, seen much, and offer the most tested and powerful words of hope.

No comments:

Post a Comment