An Elder: Vincent Harding

The formal public inauguration of The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project in Baltimore, Maryland is quickly approaching.  As we come close to that first commemorative event in August, we want our readers and supporters to become acquainted with members of our advisory and honorary boards. We believe that with a better understanding of the people who have chosen to be affiliated with the project, our vision and mission becomes clearer. Whenever possible, because so many of the board members have produced and contributed significantly, we will on occasion share selections from their written work. Dr. Vincent Harding, an elder and member of our Honorary Board, has provided a life of scholarship and leadership.

We have chosen his powerful and eloquent work, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981), to spotlight in this post. As a mentor and guide, his vision, advice, and direction are highly valued. Through his personal experiences, he has encouraged us to embrace our past and to create the vision of a glowing future. His metaphor for the struggle of Africans since captivity in the transatlantic slave trade to the present is a river. In this book he eloquently bears witness to:

“…the presence of the mysterious transformative dance of life that has produced the men and women, the ideas and institutions, the visions, the betrayals, and heroic dreams renewed in blood that are at once the anguish and the glory of the river of our struggle in this land.”

Dr. Harding explains why he assumed this task, this study of our experiences:

“Somewhere near the heart of this work is a search for meaning, an attempt to apprehend and share with others my own tentative grasp of the harrowing and terrifying beauty of my people’s pilgrimage in this strangely promised land. Why did it happen? Why were we chosen to be chosen, if we were? How in the midst of such death and suffering could we find so much strength to love, so much determination to live, fight on, and be free? In permanent and grueling exile, how could a people dance and create songs and art, fashion institutions of hope, bear so many children of beauty? In the land of our captivity, subject to a host of attempts at dehumanization and humiliation, how and why did we become the nation’s foremost champions of human freedom and social justice, creators of many of its most native rhythms of life? And what now is our future, and this nation’s destiny, if those costly, creative black visions of hope, long nurtured in the fires of persecution, should be broken and bastardized – or meanly forgotten – in a ruthless and unprincipled process of Americanization?”

The need to repair and maintain generational connections he describes as

“…this collective venture toward wholeness. A sense of meaning – which we surely create out of our particular responses to the ‘facts’ of experience – is crucial if we are to join ourselves to the past and the future, to commune with the ancestors as well as the coming children. Without it we lose touch with ourselves, our fellow humans, and other creatures, with the earth our mother, and with the cosmos itself. Without the search for meaning, the quest for vision, there can be no authentic movements toward liberation, no true identity or radical integration for an individual or a people. Above all, where there is no vision we lose the sense of our great power to transcend history and create a new future for ourselves with others, and we perish utterly in hopelessness, mutual terror, and despair. Therefore the quest is not a luxury; life itself demands it of us.” 

Dr. Harding stated:

“I was especially concerned to try to convey its [the history of black people’s freedom struggle] long continuous movement, flowing like a river, sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and roiling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, all too often streaked and running with blood.” 

Dr. Harding wanted to

“…be faithful to the soul of the river, of its people, the living and the dead, the many thousands gone. It seemed essential that I try to convey the spirit of struggle and hope, of laughter and despair, of fear, determination, and sacrifice, to capture the apprehension of waiting for sunrise through all the terror-filled hours of darkness.”

 In summary, the final objective in celebrating and analyzing black people’s freedom struggle is: 

“…at its heart a profoundly human quest for transformation, a constantly evolving movement toward personal integrity and toward new social structures filled with justice, equality, and compassion. Though it has often seemed to be a restricted political, economic, or racial struggle, it has always tried to help men and women discover their tremendous capacities as individuals and as members of an empowering community. Thus at its deepest levels the river moves toward a freedom that liberates the whole person and humanizes the entire society, pressing us beyond the boundaries of race, class, and nationality that serve temporarily, necessarily, as our organizing, stabilizing bases. From my perspective, this is the magnificent opening toward which the river has been moving, the great ocean of humanity’s best hope that it has always held and nurtured at the center of its own bursting life.”

Our project is a part of that river.

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