Dear “Uncle Vincent”
[The New York Times recently wrote a wonderful story about who Dr. Vincent Harding was from a historical perspective. This is who he was to me personally.]
My Dear Uncle Vincent,
Surely the Earth, all at once, feels both lighter and heavier after losing a giant like you. Lighter, for the love-drenched heart that anchored her during the seismic cultural tidal waves that you instigated is now missing; heavier, for now those weighty dreams of justice you carried on your broad shoulders are, for a moment, searching for other vessels to carry them onward. For now, those dreams press against the Earth’s bosom like dead weight, reminding her of what life would be like without people like you who risk all of themselves for love.
The gentle and gigantic are not supposed to inhabit a human soul as fluidly as they did yours. How can one man be tender enough to whisper to babies with the heartiness of a grandfather, yet strong enough to house within your chest the battle cries of entire generations clawing for freedom? How can one voice be, to the downtrodden, sweeter than the hickory sauce of family reunions, but sharp enough to condemn an entire government for its cruel war practices against the Vietnamese people? You, my friend, were a beautiful, holy contradiction: The Baby-Whispering Bomb-Stopper, The Revolutionary Grandfather, The Compassionate Genius, The Subjective Academic, The Encouraging-Fighter.
And now, The Present Ancestor.
My dear Uncle, I hear you consoling us between the tears, still selflessly giving from beyond the thin veil that now separates us:
Focus, my nephew.
Breathe . . . Breathe.
You must continue the work, my beloved nephew.
Keep hungering for justice. Jesus will fill you.
I am one with the great cloud now.
But I am still with you.
I sense you now teaching us the ultimate lesson through the final illustration of your transition. You tried very hard to convey it to us during your time here, but, for me, it has only now begun to crystalize as your physical presence has been pulled from beneath me like a rug. You tried to teach it whenever I subconsciously looked toward those special leaders to fix the world for us. Like when I asked you to rate President Obama’s job performance and to analyze to what extent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the rest of your generation realized “the dream.” I asked who would be the next one to show us the way.
“Would you stop waiting for someone else to come, Anthony,” you said as sternly as any words I had ever heard you speak. “I see a leader right in front of me.”
Waiting for the next King, or Mandela, or Hamer, or you to ride in on horseback, through gold-plated doors, and stand atop the lectern of humanity to spout off answers for our times was a futile exercise. You pushed us to believe that every possibility for a better world lived within us. One of your favorite quotes was, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” The implication: We must build it.
The last time I saw you at breakfast, and then in your office, you were still walking and working as buoyantly as ever to build our belonging place. You moved with an uncanny tenacity that refused to rest on the throne of your own laurels. “We have work to do,” you would say, refusing to submit to the cynicism that often afflicts those who are as fluent with injustice as you were. If it was not rooted in hope, you would not welcome it into your being.
None of us have much time on this earth, especially after our 80th year, but your spirit mysteriously convinced me that you could quite possibly live forever as you were, perpetually wise and youthful. I certainly did not expect God to take you now — not with such disorienting chaos in an age that requires our best faith and wisdom to navigate. I was convinced that we still needed you, that we would always need you.
I had many more questions to ask you, my dear Uncle. More questions about the secrets of fatherhood, about the boundless hope and unifying struggle of our people, about how to interpret the Black freedom struggle for a generation that seems to have a debilitating amnesia. More questions about how you managed to live with such weighty courage that grounded a world overwhelmed with fear. I wanted you to remind me once more to be less consumed with answers and to simply behold the beauty of questions:
“Such beautiful questions, my nephew.”
Then you would quote the great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, and remind me to take joy in living the questions:
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Then, with all the spirit of a curious child, you would sometimes pause and ask another question that uncovered new angles. You saw the world through unconventional lenses that challenged us all to rethink the old paradigms that we had been handed. When I asked if we, as Black people, were relevant to America anymore, you asked if our goal should be relevance, at all. You questioned if the old America as we know it is still relevant.
My beloved Uncle, I was always watching you, trying to absorb your ways. I saw how, to you, no one was a stranger. You would greet everyone whom you walked by as if they were a distant relative—always encouraging, always concerned, always calling out someone’s best self:
“You have a beautiful smile, my dear sister.” “How are you doing, my friend?” “Be strong, my brother.” One time you explained to me that you borrowed this practice of acknowledging everyone from your mentor, Dr. Howard Thurman, who made it his habit to communicate through personal greetings that we humans are all on this journey of life together.
I watched how you prayed over meals by acknowledging the ancestors because, in your mind, the ones who had walked ahead of us in the river were as fully present at the table as anyone else. “Thank you . . . thank you . . . thank you,” you would call out deliberately before a plate of smothered turkey and gravy. Your heart was full of gratitude for how the ancestors struggled for us, and how they would guide us whenever we summoned their presence through the sacred act of singing the freedom songs that they taught us. You knew that it was impossible to define reality without the help of this great cloud of witnesses.
I watched and listened to how you would begin all of our conversations by asking about my precious family. No conversation about social theories, history, theology, or the movement was ever too important to neglect them. Once, as we sat on a panel together, speaking on the very serious matter of applying Dr. King’s legacy to today, my little son unabashedly interrupted us in front of hundreds of people by running onto the stage. I blushed, and tried to get someone to escort him from the panel immediately. “No, no, let him come,” you said. And he did. Plump on the stage, right next to his “Uncle Vincent.” Your adoration of children—your recognition of their invaluable nature—was certainly part of what made you such a great dad to your own children, Jonathan and Rachel. My heart breaks for how much they must miss you, having never known a world apart from you. My friend, I promise to serve them and your beloved wife, Aljose, for as long as I live.
I long for another one of our late-night phone conversations. I miss those times when you would let me lean on your strength with all of my weight until I could find my bearings beneath the fear and, somehow, walk courageously again. Your voice was always doused in encouragement that soaked through to the dry parts of my soul. A man with your intellectual prowess and genius could have easily become a critic; but, a long time ago, you heeded the advice of your beloved first wife and coworker, Rosmarie, and gave your life to being an encourager instead. We were all better for it.
When I was concerned that my life could be in danger because of the nature of my work, you told Erika and me to prepare a cot for you to sleep on so that you could be with us through the night. You had no need for the kind of accommodations typically associated with a man of your stature. A cot, you said, would be just fine. Those demonstrations of your friendship taught me that life is more about relationship than anything—that the beloved community which you sought to build was not some abstract idea but a reality that comes when people realize that we were made for each other. It seems, Uncle Vincent, that you were made for all of us.
During one of our conversations months ago, I sensed more urgency in your tone than ever before. I had written you an essay that explained the terror of the Black experience without also including its richness. Do you remember my letter, Uncle Vincent? I cited how Tupac Shakur once rapped that we were “Born black in a white manz world.” You all but shredded my essay. When you called, your words had twice their normal weight—as if you were trying to urgently impart something to me that you wanted to ensure that I received. As if you didn’t have much time left. That moment was holy.
“You must always talk about the terror and beauty of our experience in the same space. If we don’t put those two together, the message is not what it fully should be.”
Then, like a skilled surgeon, you plucked a root that could have eventually sprung in my soul as bitterness:
“Never give into the idea that America is the white man’s country, because that gives affirmation to a lie. From the beginning, this has been contested territory. We are contested territory … Who owns it, then, might be declared by who has been willing to give sacrificially their lives to rebuilding it.”
If this is the case, my Uncle, then America was yours. No one sacrificed for it more than you. No one called forth its potential with as much belief as you. We must now steward this possession with as much care as you did.
Creating from the chaos.
Building instead of complaining.
Looking forward with the ancestors in full view.
Close your eyes, my dear Uncle. Rest, for your beautiful work is complete. The burden of responsibility now shifts from you to us. At least now we finally perceive it has. I won’t disappoint. We won’t disappoint. We will carry on with the same faith, hope, and love that motivated you. We will carry on with tears of gratitude and pain for all you did and for the gaping hole that you left.
We will work until we meet again.
Writer and activist Anthony Grimes has a vision
to see empowered neighbors building beloved community. He is the
founder of UrbanMuse Media. As a leader within the Christian Community
Development Association, he locally and nationally engages the social
issues of education and mass incarceration.