A Letter To Vincent Harding:
I only met you once, a gracious meeting, your humility overflowed and was unforgettable. But in a sense reading your words was like knowing you, your writing was reminiscent of a deeply held, ancient belief in the role of words, the idea that good speech was a sacred obligation and duty. If anything, it is your example that taught us that words fail, unless they are connected to a deeper, a more potent foundation. Our words only have meaning when connected to the Divine Conversation. A conversation that is about how to sustain humanity, how we might live better. You were—you are—the carrier of the idea that intellectual work means more than mere words on a page. You embodied the notion that words must be living—they must speak to a living tradition, to “after.” For this example, we are eternally grateful. For your years of deep thinking about our condition, we are grateful. For your pain and struggle in the hard work of institution building, we are grateful. For your sacrifice of comfort for the sake of our people, we are grateful. You wrote about the very thing that you embodied. The river. You are the river, a river that will never dry. As you transition, let the silt that you leave, replenish a new generation of deep thinkers, willing to sacrifice, willing to struggle, for the work of African liberation is not merely academic, it is life itself.
Your prose spoke volumes. We will forever remember your small words with immense implications, gentle sentences with large meaning. Your ideas—rivers of struggle emptied into Black universities, the search for the new land, vocations of scholars whose work raises the fundamental contradictions of life in America, not for the self-aggrandizement and academic cachet that comes with incessant “problematizing”…but because resolution mattered—they shall live for they still mean the world. Yeah, we changed the world. But it is a just world we still dream for. A world that we must fight for. For the world that you wrote from, lived in, struggled with, is not a world we want for our children’s children. So we think, write, and fight. For well-thought ideas lead to well-started fires, well-considered thought informs profound and well-justified anger. Good speech endures. This is your lesson and we have listened. And we still must listen. For real listening is most evident when one has acted.
Your struggles inspired. I imagine for a Harlem boy, moving South was not easy. But the ancestors called. Like you, we will strive to answer the call. The human vision you set forth in your work in the Black freedom struggle was a guiding light for your generation. War and imperialism were not delinked from civil rights. It was, and it is, time to break the silence. To step out from our timidities, to embrace the real, to proclaim truth. Lives depend on it. You helped us see. You made the connections. For that we are better.
You helped envision a Black university, even a Black world. Ebony Magazine took notice. This world—a conceptual, a physical space, where ideas—ours—would structure new realities. We call(ed) it Black Studies. Yours was an era where our folk yearned for a space like the Institute of the Black World, a space to think. Freedom to struggle with ideas. Space to engage. There you built a community of thinkers: Rodney, Strickland, Cole, Ladner, heroes and heroines, all. Today, we have failed to match this example. We promise to try harder. For your work showed us that the aim was not be “accepted” in academic spaces, it was not for a Black Studies that merely existed as the university’s diversity initiative. You helped us to understand that Black Studies was about the courage to speak the uncompromised truth and let chips fall where they may; and when the chips fell, to build something better. That unidentifiable, unresolved, gnawing feeling that we had, you articulated. We only knew something was wrong, but because you convened with the ancestors who had experienced that same feeling, you helped us identify that thing. Their conclusions were your conclusions. They/You taught us that the assumptions that determined American knowledges were not something to be desirous of. We needn’t be fooled, for accepting what Du Bois once called “The American Assumption” could only result in the loss of our Soul.
Words that bite and soothe. Words that claw and calm. Words that tear and build. There is beauty in our struggle. You showed us. The ancestors will surely welcome their own. And we will find comfort that you are now in Front. Showing us the way that with tears have been watered is also the path of the river. The unceasing struggle. Reminding us, like you have always done, that our work continues. We must remember, but never stop struggling, ‘til victory’s won. Now you are in Front. Answering the call, like you always did, the ancestral pantheon is now that much stronger. The role you played in our lives will forever reside in our hearts and minds. The role you will play as an ancestor—eyes have not seen, ears have not heard.
You once stated:
… the first truth a people needs is the truth about themselves and the nature and possible meaning of their own existence. And when a community shares the African heritage of three-dimensional historical existence, when past, present, and future are in constant, sometimes ecstatic, conversation, then each dimension of the people’s being must be addressed. For the people are their fathers and mothers. They are their children. Just as they are themselves.
Yes, words can engender life. Vincent Harding, your voice was true. And We thank, honor, and praise the Creator for everything that you were, are, and everything that you will be. Ase.
In the River,