Thursday, May 29, 2014

Vincent Harding, part 2



Vincent is perhaps the only person I have known who would meet me for lunch at Poppy’s (a favorite restaurant of his, not too far from Iliff) or at his office at the Veterans of Hope at Iliff and ask me to join him on adventures and I would just do so (he eldered me a bit, too…). I was looking, for example, to communicate about my new book Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, and he invited me to the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) conference in Richmond, Virginia. See here. ASALH, as an organization mainly of black scholars and including high school teachers and students, was born in the struggle; the people who come (like Jim Turner, Bob Harris, Bill Strickland, Berenice Johnson Reagon, Sterling Stuckey and John Bracey - they worked together with Vincent, after King was shot, at the fledgling Institute of the Black World - are often part of, when they were younger, nurtured in, gave voice to - Sweet Honey and the Rock- the movement. It is thus part of a fledgling beloved community in a way that other professional associations, say the philosophical or political science or sociology associations, are not (there are, of course, aspects – I have old friends from the anti-War movement like Tracy Strong or Mike Goldfield or Hilary Putnam - or panels that are, but this association, often in its spirit, is).

***

It was the thirtieth anniversary of the publishing of There is a River; there was a gathering to celebrate it and Vincent's long career of activism and writing. Many spoke powerfully, the words eloquent, even divine about it, including Rachel Harding, and Vincent read the fiery conclusion, drawn from the spirituals, about the Jordan River and transformation:

"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.

***

We also went to the Virginia Theological Union in Richmond. The churches have long been involved in this struggle. James Kinney, the president, took some of us, including Vincent’s great friend, the eloquent Lerone Bennett - author of "The Road Not Taken" about the nature of English colonial and American elite divide and conquer - to a chapel. There those who freed themselves in the struggle of the civil war, hungering to be able to read, were made visible in beautiful stained glass dating from 1865 (the year There is a River ends).

The aspirations of Reconstruction were in the glass; poor blacks and whites worked for the education embodied there (it was perhaps the only decent, integrated, education ever in America I think – cf. W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction - and it says a lot about how the Ku Klux Klan, the “Democratic” Party in the South and today’s “Republican” successor to which the racists fled during and following the civil rights movement seek, again and again, to imprison and break spirits ("hungry ghosts," as Buddhists say). See here. 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...

***

The Seminary was built on the Lumpkin Plantation, formerly known as Devil's Acre; the slave master fell in love with and married Mary and left it to her. In 1865, she gave it to become the Baptist Freedom School...

***

Vincent also brought Michelle Alexander to Denver to speak at the DU law school and a church in Park Hill. He said to me that she is the new Ida B. Wells and a powerful movement has sprung up importantly instigated by her work The New Jim Crow, which underlines that America holds 2.3 million in prison, 25% of the world’s prisoners. I also had lunch with her at the political science meetings where her work helped bring some of that life and struggle into a professional world which is often surprisingly shielded from/uninterested in powerful and decent democratic politics…See here, here and here.

***

At another lunch with Vincent, he asked: why don’t you come, with a civil rights and Jewish activists against the Occupation sponsored by the Dorothy Cotton Institute, to visit Israel? I had sometimes been invited to Israel (the invitations never worked out), and as I learned about the Palestinians of course, I could only come - as someone loyal to the people who suffered from and fought back against the pogroms in Russia; my ancestors on my mother’s side come from the ghtetos of the Ukraine - to meet and learn from nonviolent resistors, Palestinian and Israeli alike (we met the courageous Anarchists against the Wall who go out to be shot at with tear gas canisters and live ammunition for supporting nonviolent demonstrations in the villages).

I had long realized that the Palestinians are the jews of the Occupied Territories and the Occupiers are the Europeans (just as Americans are the immigrant Occupiers of indigenous land, the killers and “transferrers” of indigenous people),

***

Vincent was there, leading us in song and in conversations about what we saw and what to do about it. Some weeks afterwards, he read aloud his letter to Bassem Tamimi, leader of nonviolent resistance in the village of Nabi Saleh, jailed and beaten in a way recalling the struggles against racism in America. His powerful cadences, prophetic as well as poetic, are worth taking in (listen here).

***

When we entered the police state of Israel, we couldn’t even take books on the Middle East we were reading for the trip because if the customs inspectors found them, we might be turned away. Aren't many Jews known for curiosity and taking things on politically and in the investigation of nature? Israel, not so much...

***

The government wants no visitor to notice the Wall and the people behind it, the people imprisoned and being, with meticulous calculation, disenfranchised, decitizenized, removed. Palestinians who have lived in Jerusalem for generations have been transformed by decree of the Occupation into “permanent residents.” We met Clay Carson’s student Ramzi Maqdisi who was expelled from his home for going and learning acting in Spain, denied “permission” to return. Israeli officials stifle others and drive them out for acquiring skills – who does that to whom?

***

On the way home, we had to put the fliers and pamphlets we got in the bottom of our small suitcases because if the young airport inspectors found them, we would be taken off and questioned fiercely for 7 or 8 hours.

***

The Israeli state wants to harass and exile those who resist its policies, but in the case of us visitors in solidarity would simply have wanted to get rid of us. This contrasts with Palestinians who can never take their children 35 or 40 kilometres through check points to the sea. In a home in Budrus, another village, we saw "Five Broken Cameras" – the film maker had had his camera broken five times by Israeli authorities who don’t want photos of what they do getting out - which had this theme in it among others. The film maker got shot by the army while filming, and needed an operation in Israel. Then he at last got permission to take his children for a day at the stolen beach.

***

The government would not, after harassing us, have kept us, wanted us to go home. In contrast, this is the Palestinians' home; the process of the second "transfer" or ethnic cleansing in the Occupied Territories, is calculated, longstanding, meticulous; the State of Israel illegally and immorally strips people of their homes.

***

Like the Israeli soldiers those who are too young to be fully formed, to know better, the customs officers are being shaped, except of course, for those who admirably come to themselves. Natan, a young man from Breaking the Silence, showed us around the “Jews only” Shuhadah street in Occupied Hebron - see here. Normally, however, these soldiers do an evil which their elders suffered in Europe.

***

On the trip, we went to Occupied Nabi Saleh, a small village where the Tamimis (the family name of the some 1500 inhabitants) protested nonviolently, except a few teenagers throwing rocks, to save their olive trees. The olive trees, sometimes 2000 years old, pray to heaven, as the villagers say and as Vincent speaks to. See here and here. The Wall cuts them off. Villagers, usually older women, get to water them but one day a year. Settlers sometimes burn them…

The gleaming pink settlement, subsidized by the Israeli government, looms on a nearby hill.

****

Among the black people who came, there wasn’t a person unsympathetic to the plight of jews in Europe. There was also not a person who didn’t see this instantly, as everyone remarked at the Airport, as “Jim Crow” or apartheid.

***

Among our sojourners was Aljosie Aldrich, a powerful and gentle spirit from rural Georgia, long part of the movement, who married Vincent last winter.

***

During the trip, Vincent gave a wonderful interview to Amira Haas, the great Haaretz reporter who lives in and reports from the territories. See here. Though much of the richness of his upbringing was in the support he received from a Victory Tabernacle Seventh Day Church in Harlem where his single mom and he were welcomed and nurtured - see here - he also recalled an upstairs neighbor had become a Jew; his teachers, often Jews, saw the immense potential in him and eldered him.

Vincent's own eldering - seeing the potential of young Osama and Janna Tamimi before they quite see it themselves - mirrored his own.

***

Vincent also went to City College which was then 96% Jewish; Vincent took part in SNCC (though Vincent was active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Stokely Carmichael, his fellow immigrant from the Caribbean, lived with Vincent and Rosemary), alongside volunteers, many of whom were Jews. One of the noble features of Jewish life has been to accompany - the word is Staughton Lynd's, also a participant in that movement and Vincent’s great friend - others who are oppressed on their path of liberation, to swim in that river…

***

From first to fourth grade, I was a classmate and friend at Walden School of Andy Goodman. I had gone on a freedom ride to Chestertown, Maryland where the people had been attacked by a mob led by the sheriff the week before. Three years later, I decided not go to Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Andy did.

***

Vincent did not know Andy (he was murdered on his first day in Mississippi, having gone from the freedom school in Ohio where most of the volunteers were still gathered, a week early), but was friends with Michael Schwerner and James Cheney.

***

When Vincent or Dorothy Cotton, the education minister and sole woman in the leadership of the SCLC, spoke of freeing the Palestinians, it was thus not for any lack of love for Jews. Quite the contrary. It was seeing what Jews had done straight up, seeing the souls of those who fought oppression, mourning the Europeanness of Israel, and fighting for a community where all people, Jews and Arabs can be treated decently.

***

Israel has been the expelling community. Vincent listened and spoke to all, with great force, of recognizing the Palestinians, of supporting and developing mass nonviolent resistance, and of what, given the end of Occupation, Israelis can do to begin to do to heal…

***

In the small village of Nabi Saleh, we stayed with Bassem Tamimi – see here. Bassem had been in jail for over a year for organizing nonviolent protest against the Wall. Shortly after we left, he held up a sign and chanted at a nonviolent demonstration at a settlement supermarket. He was beaten terribly by the IDF (Israeli "Defense" Forces) – his ribs broken – and was thrown again in an Israeli prison for four months. See here. and here. He adopted Vincent as a cousin when Vincent came (Vincent refers to him as cousin, nephew, brother, son). Listen here. We sat on Bassem’s and Neriman's roof watching a demonstration below (within range of Israeli guns, they knew that we were there and it must have taken some “restraint” to fire live ammunition only at the young Palestinians demonstrating down the hill…).

Vincent and Bassem became fast friends.

***

The Israeli government and its American supporters do not know what to do with Palestinians who walk in the path of Martin Luther King, who mount nonviolent resistance to the Wall. In Nabi Saleh, the Israeli army murdered two younger Tamimis at demonstrations Mohammed Tamimi two weeks before and Rushdi Tamimi two weeks after we were there - see here and Janna's Song here. But the demonstrations forced Israel to move the wall back beyond more of the olive trees.

***

We all walked by the Wall, picked up the silver American-made tear gas canisters - by the deceptively misnamed Consolidated Systems Inc. - and the black "rubber" bullet shells littering the sand and among the rocks. Yes, pictures of this are not to be shown in America, for they would make news like Bull Connor's fire hosing of children and siccing police dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham…People would - and increasingly will - stand up against it.

***

In his interview with Amira Haas, Vincent drew a line:

"Harding wrote King's speech against continuing the war in Vietnam, which was delivered to a huge audience at a New York church exactly a year before King's murder. Harding reassures us that King usually wrote his speeches by himself, but 'at the time he apparently assumed that college professors had more time than freedom leaders.'

They formulated their views against the war together. Harding and King told the skeptics within the black community that 'we have been very glad whenever voices came from outside the U.S., especially from the Third World, to stand in solidarity with us.'

For the same reason it is natural for Harding and his friends to come now and listen to the Palestinians and Israelis who are actively fighting the occupation: In Jerusalem and Bil'in, Ramallah, Hebron, the Deheisheh refugee camp and the village of Walaja. One of the things that he learned immediately in the first two days was 'how ignorant I was about what is really happening in this part of the world, how little I know and how little I have thought about how little I know - which is not characteristic of me. I come to this situation not simply as somebody who has been involved with non-violent actions of various kinds over many years, but as someone who for some known and unknown reasons, ever since I was in high school, was deeply concerned about learning about the Holocaust.'

...'I come from an American situation in which apartheid has been in one shape or another the reality of the country from its beginning up to the 1950s and 1960s, and then a struggle with how to get rid of it. As I have listened to my sisters and brothers here I felt familiarity and identification. I could identify on both levels - it's important to emphasize I came here as someone deeply in love with specific Jewish people, and deeply concerned by the great tragedy of the Holocaust experience. I came here as someone who experienced and fought against racial segregation and racial domination for half a century or more. So all this was very fresh and painful to me and very recognizable.'

And what will you do now with what you've learned?

'I have been gifted with a great network of acquaintances, friends and colleagues, and I see a great responsibility right now to disseminate this knowledge and information in writing and by word. I will meet with lawmakers.'" See here.

Every one of us on the delegation and many others will continue, perhaps less eloquently and humorously but with some persistence, this dissemination...

***

No wonder that Jewish students on campuses all over the country – those who have gotten some knowledge of the Occupation - have joined the fight for divestment. For those of you who think this movement means nothing, consider again the beloved community of solidarity and decency…

***

Vincent had brought the deep red flooding of There is a River back to the Jordan.

***

Vincent and Dorothy Cotton would lead us at a morning or evening meeting and on the bus, in song. Song is hope. See here.

***

After Andy and James Cheney and Michael Schwerner disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi, everyone in SNCC knew they were dead. Bob Moses, a great student leader, told all the volunteers to call home and talk with their parents and take a day to think about whether they would stay. We won’t think badly, he said, of anyone for deciding to go home.

They stayed and talked and sang. And the songs, in the immense darkness that surrounded them and those whom they met like Fannie Lou Hamer, a Tamimi of Ruleville, Mississippi, filled them, against all odds, with hope. (Vincent named his center at Iliff the King-Gandhi-Fannie Lou Hamer Center).

Few went home.

***

Vincent remarked on the foolishness of those who mock – "Come by here Lord - 'Kumbaya'"…

***

One morning, we almost sang "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho." But we had a discussion instead. Vincent pointed out that “the walls come tumbling down” so that Joshua can commit genocide against the Canaanites. We all left that spiritual behind. The story of liberation of the Jews has inspired other oppressed people. Barack spoke of how the story of Jews leaving slavery had moved him; Vincent wrote to his younger brother Barack and his advisors, some of whom he knew, about some of the many missteps, even the celebration of taking out Bin Laden - see here).

***

Vincent loved “we are climbin Jacob’s ladder" and composed a resonant new verse:

"We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world, we are building up a new world, builders must be strong." Listen here.

***

In November, after we came back, Vincent invited me to go for lunch and gave me a copy of "This American Life" on the driving of the Sioux out of Minnesota in 1862, “You know”, he said, "the closest analogy to the Palestinians isn’t African-Americans but indigenous people and we should do something about it.”

***

I have long known of and demonstrated against the oppression of indigenous people (at DU, I helped organize a protest in the late 1970s against a racist fantasy in the Clarion about a young woman tanning herself in the New Mexico sun and having elaborate fears of a Native American man walking nearby), but somehow hadn’t taken in the magnitude and bearing on Denver - its founding in the Sand Creek massacre - of this. In January, 2013, I and my wife wrote a letter against the Chivington monument – formally, a 1909 statue to an Anonymous Veteran of the Civil War, not the Civil War against slavery in the South but a second Civil War of ethnic cleansing against indigenous people in the West – in front of the state capitol. See here. And since then, as readers know, I have been engaged in excavating the full meaning of the celebration of John Evans.

This journey, too, began from one of our lunches.

***

I saw Vincent for the last time at a brilliant conversation with Omid Safi, an Islamic scholar who was visiting at Iliff. See here. I shared with them the sesquicentennial of DU and Sand Creek – a journey also set in motion by Vincent's invitation – and its role in the founding of DU and Iliff. Chivington and Evans were on the original board of the Colorado Seminary which became DU, a Methodist University; Iliff became DU’s School of Theology and then an independent institution in 1910. The administration at DU has taken very significant steps to recognize the evil of the Massacre and make, to the extent possible, a new start.

What I said turns out to be a kind of last spiritual callback or report to my friend.

***

I spoke with Vincent at the end of the gathering and gave him a hug.

***

It gave Vincent life, wisdom and wholeness to be on the path of struggle and compassion. In his own way like Dr. King, he was an astronaut, exploring ever new territories which are part of the diverse movement for a beloved community, a multiracial democracy. He named the newness of this American experiment which has emerged from the civil rights movement and is but 50 years old. He was not weary…

***

Vincent Gordon Harding, that great heart and spirit, is no longer here. But I will not, one single day, cease to learn from his powerful, gentle, healing voice or hear his singing. He has brought together many of us through his eldering.

There is a great hole now in the Universe. But we, too, are astronauts…

And there is also unforgettable and marvelous presence. We are, sisters and brothers, of one heart…



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