Monday, March 8, 2010

An Interview with Vincent Harding

The following conversation took place on March 6, 2010, via telephone. Vincent Harding, 78, is a renowned black historian known for his work with Martin Luther King. Noah Gallo-Brown, 20, is an artist and student at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Noah Gallo-Brown:
 In your article
Black Power and the American Christ, which came out in 1967, you write that “Black power is a religious reality more faithful to our own experience.” Could you expand on that statement?

Vincent Harding: Every since the children of Africa were brought to this country and came in touch with the Christian religion, we had to figure out some way to come to terms with what white Christians were teaching about religion and what they were doing in their social, economic, and political lives. It was clear to many African Americans at the very outset that the Christianity they were being taught could not be accepted on the terms that slave owners were presenting it because slavery itself was a contradiction to Jesus’ call to love each other as we love ourselves. When I spoke of black religion or black theology as being more faithful to our own experience, I was simply referring to the fact that the religion presented by the slave owners could not possibly be accepted by the slaves. 

We were in two very different social, economic, and political places. It was important to see the religious picture from [the perspective of] those who were enslaved, those who were powerless...It would be like asking the Jewish people to receive a religion that was developed by Nazis without making any changes.

NGB: In the same article, there is one passage that stuck me as particularly powerful. You write, “We know your Christ and his attitude toward Africa. We remember how his white missionaries warned against Africa’s darkness and heathenism, against its savagery and naked jungle heart. We are tired of all that. This Africa that you love and hate, but mostly fear—this is our homeland. We saw you exchange your bibles for our land. We watched you pass our tracts and take in gold. We heard you teach hymns to get our diamonds. You control them still. If this is what your Christ taught you, he is sharp, baby, he is shrewd; but he’s no savior of ours.” I was wondering if this is still what you believe or if your opinion has changed since then.

VH: Well, first of all, I was merely using a rhetorical device to articulate the stance of Black Power leaders.

NGB: Did you agree with such Black Power leaders? What was your stance on this issue?

VH: Well, as I mentioned to you at the outset, there was a great deal of logic to [being] critical of the mainstream white Christian position, because the white Christian mainstream did not take seriously its responsibility to speak on behalf of the poor and on behalf of the endangered. So I saw that as a very logical position for many people to develop.

NGB: At that time, many people were afraid of the black church. I think that America is still afraid of the black church. This was reflected in the controversy surrounding Reverend Wright. President Obama was forced to publically disassociate himself from Wright during his campaign. What was your reaction to that controversy? 

I felt like much of that uproar came from people who were not familiar with the black church. It was very neurotic,  because it came from people who would seek to idolize Dr. King, when in his own way Dr. King was bringing at least as deep a critique of [American] foreign policy as Reverend Wright. 

NGB: Speaking of King, you were appointed director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center in 1968, and in your book Hope and History you write a lot about Martin. How has your opinion of Martin changed as the years have passed?

VH: I think that my appreciation of him has deepened, both during the course of the movement and since the movement [ended] and that’s probably because I didn’t confine him to someone who was working for Civil Rights for Negroes but whose ultimate goal was to create a more just and compassionate society for everybody. And he was willing to risk his life and his reputation to stand up for that kind of vision of a more just and compassionate America. I thought that that kind of wisdom and courage were very much needed. I was very glad that we were brothers together.

NGB Why do you think that the media exaggerates the divide between King and Malcolm X?

VH: I think the media always wants to simplify things. Complexity is not the media’s specialty. It is much easier to simplify them and place them in opposing positions than to recognize the many things they had in common, as well as some elements where they clearly disagreed. The media sought to develop their own narrative. At the end of his life, Malcolm was no longer accepting that narrative. He was very much in agreement with the main focus of King’s direction, and that was the focus of building a new America that could be occupied and claimed and governed by all of its people.

NGB: One thing Black Power and the black church did achieve was a strong sense of community and pride within the black community. As our society has moved in a more individualistic direction, what should the black community do to regain that sense of community? Is Black Power still the answer?

VH: I’m not sure that it was Black Power and such that built that sense of community. Black Power was activating a greater sense of community and was certainly calling for some of the class values within the community to be broken down. The hope now is...for the church and the community to recognize that a nation and a people and an institution, each of those, is ultimately most valued by the way they treat their poorest and most disabled people. It seems to me that that was the message that King was putting forward, that, for the most part, was the message that the Black Power movement was putting forward, and that is still a fundamental truth. That when a community, especially a religious community, places the cure for the most beat-up members of society aside for material wealth, then the community is in trouble. Therefore, the answer is not Black Power or another slogan. The answer is to remind itself what its most basic purpose was, has developed, and continues to be as it carries on.

NGB: In the black community in the late 1960s, there was a divide between those who believed in nonviolence and those who believed in self-defense or revolutionary violence. 

VH: Let's clear a few things up. I found very few people who believed in armed revolutionary struggle beyond talking about it. There were elements of the Black Panthers, and a few other small groups of people [who advocated revolutionary violence], but the larger group saw the justification of armed self-defense, as you put it. It is important not to conflate these two groups. Only a small minority talked about armed revolution, and that was only talk because there were obviously no resources for that.

NGB: Nowadays, there is a lot of violence in urban communities, especially low-income and predominately black communities. How do we get violence out of these communities? Is the answer changing societal and governmental structures, or does it have to come from within the black community?

VH: Down beneath all that went on and has gone on in the black community is the American tendency towards violence, and the use of such violence to solve its problems. If you remember, by the end of his life King was identifying racism, materialism, and militarism as the three most destructive elements in the American society. It is very important to recognize that every element of what we call violence in the black community is built on the foundation of American violence and its fundamental teachings that violence can be [used] to solve human problems. In that sense, before he changed his point of view, Malcolm was much more American than King was. For a large part of his life, [Malcolm] bought into the idea that fire fights fire. I would want to make the case for recognizing that any conversation we have about violence should not be confined to the black community.

NGB: I definitely agree with that.

VH: One more thing. Those who practiced nonviolence, especially in the Southern Freedom Movement, had more success [than proponents of violence]. In many ways, that movement has to be [recognized for] preparing the way for the possibility of an Obama being elected. The so-called armed revolutionary movement has nothing to show in comparison. Most black people are keen to know that talk of armed revolution is very, very different than action in an unarmed revolution, which is what I would call the nonviolent movement that transformed especially the South, and in many ways the country. That was an unarmed revolutionary movement. There has never been an armed revolutionary movement, there have been pockets, but nothing compared to the nonviolent revolutionary movement. 

Some final advice to you, Noah. There’s an old black sang song that goes, now you know, so now you owe.

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