There is a need and desire among folks in activist communities for resources of ritual and spiritual grounding.
“There are roots of both deep compassion and profound critique in the traditions of spiritually-based social justice organizing in our country.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured authors are Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel Elizabeth Harding. Rosemarie Freeney Harding (1930–2004) was an organizer, teacher, social worker, and cofounder of Mennonite House, an early integrated community center in Atlanta. Rachel Elizabeth Harding, daughter of Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Vincent Harding, is Associate Professor of Indigenous Spiritual Traditions in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado, Denver. Their book is Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering. Dr. Rachel E. Harding was kind enough to participate in the interview below.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Rachel E. Harding: I don’t know that Remnants is directly helpful in that way, but the book contributes to a layered and nuanced historical understanding of the roots of mysticism, and a deep ethic of compassion, in contemporary African American activism. Rosemarie’s personal reflections on mid and late 20th century social forces and social justice movements; and the history of the Freeney-Harding clan’s work as educators, activists and spiritual counselors hopefully offer some encouragement to the current generation of people concerned for how to navigate this high water we’re moving through in the country now.
Especially since the emergence of Black Lives Matter and related organizing over the past seven years or so, I am increasingly aware of a desire, a need, among folks in activist communities, for resources of ritual and spiritual grounding – from a very inclusive perspective. My sense is that people doing the activist work (whether directly in the streets or in institution-and-relationship building) are looking for help situating themselves in a tradition of struggle, in a tradition of historical understanding that is also a connection to ancestral resources – so that they don’t feel so alone or strange or unanchored in the work they are trying to do. Remnants offers that kind of perspective, that kind of approach.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away
from reading your book?
When my mother and I were developing the book, the initial intention of Remnants was that it would be a kind of “handbook” for activists and organizers – sharing insights and practical guidance from the experiences of a wide range of movement elders who Rosemarie knew and worked with in various social justice struggles of the mid and late 20th century. And while the book eventually became more of a spiritual memoir than a step-by-step guide to organizing, I think it still holds some of the original idea – that is, of passing on some useful reflections and experiences to another generation of people who are deeply concerned for the humane and just transformation of our society.
I hope that in Rosemarie’s own family story – as well as in her reflections on friends and comrades like Grace Lee Boggs, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Ruby Sales, Prathia Hall, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Sonia Sanchez, Bob and Janet Moses, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman and others – readers will get a sense of the breadth and depth of the tradition of African American organizing that all of these extraordinary folks are connected to.
Fundamentally, I hope that people reading Remnants will be encouraged to know that there are roots of both deep compassion and profound critique in the traditions of spiritually-based social justice organizing in our country – and that the African American experience, in particular, contains extraordinary cultural, historical and ritual resources for envisioning and modeling a healthy, multiracial democracy in this land. I hope that the book will inspire readers to recognize in their own lineages of struggle (consanguineous or chosen) ancestors from whom we can all learn and take inspiration.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
That’s a great question. I hope the book represents a glimpse at an alternative way of understanding and experiencing the world – a way grounded in a womanist, indigenous, inclusive, Black and female-centered, intergenerational witness – that may offer a route toward another meaning of human community. Another source of light. Another kind of strength for the journey.
As someone who has been identified with the academy for much of my life (even if sometimes, marginally), I find it tremendously valuable, essential really, to spend significant portions of time among people who think and live deeply, richly and creatively – and who do so from a frame of reference that is not primarily academic. My mother represented this for me in some very important ways. My aunts and cousins as well. And the ritual, artistic and activist communities I participate in – both in the US and in Brazil – also represent this influence in my life and my work. I hope that my and my mother’s writing can help people in the academy take permission to expand the sources of intellectual/creative/embodied legitimacy in and for their work.
More and more, I think we need to recognize that there are many ways to be human in the world. And as Toni Morrison said, our task is to find those ways to construct and sustain societies and communities “that do not betray our humanity”; rather that make it easier for us to be in healthy, just, reciprocal relationship with one another and with the rest of the world/environment around us.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My intellectual heroes include historian of religions Charles Long (who just passed about a year ago); playwrights August Wilson and George Bass; cultural critic Veve Clarke; public theologian, Ruby Sales; and historian Sterling Stuckey; as well as poets Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton; painters John Biggers and Daniel Minter; musicians Bernice Johnson Reagon, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin; and novelist, Toni Morrison. I also love the work of African philosopher Achille Mbembe,
Brazilian sociologist Muniz Sodré and US legal scholar Michelle Alexander.
A few years ago, as I was searching for ways to situate my work and my thinking in the academy (in the absence of my mother, who passed in 2004 and who was a vital intellectual conversation partner for me in my adult life), I discovered the work of Layli Marpayan and Tamara Beauboeuf-LaFontant – both of whom write about womanist interdisciplinary and pedagogical approaches. That work has been very helpful to me. And more recently, for a project I’m just beginning, I’m finding poet Toi Derricotte’s gentle, steady but unflinching honesty very helpful.
Others who have profoundly impacted my thinking, my scholarship and my creative work are ritual elders of the Candomble tradition in Salvador, Bahia – including Iyalorixá Valnizia Pereira, Ebomi Marilene Cruz, Ebomi Lindinalva Barbosa, Ebomi Arleth Marinho, Ogã Josuel Queiroz and the late Makota Valdina Pinto.
My parents, Rosemarie and Vincent Harding, my cousin Charles Freeney and aunt Mildred Dozier, were among my earliest and most important intellectual and creative guides. My friends Marcia Minter and Melanie and Naomi Harris have also been very encouraging (and inspiring) at important points.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
One of the ways Remnants helps us imagine new worlds is that it encourages us to infuse civic engagement with creative and artistic collective exercises that are based in intergenerational, broadly inclusive experiences of cultural sharing from the range of racial and ethnic traditions represented in our cities. Remnants includes ideas for producing municipal and regional projects of creative imagining around issues as varied as reparatory justice, livable wages, affordable housing, alternatives to mass incarceration, healthy aging, and humane systems of public health and healing.
Rosemarie Freeney Harding had a remarkable confidence in the capacity of human beings to create new, beautiful, welcoming and inclusive spaces of democratic life and radical, profound mothering in the world. Even while developing a sharp critique of the imbedded injustices we live with. She was a woman with extraordinarily keen discernment. She was not a Pollyanna. She was a historian, she was a master teacher, she was an organizer and a counselor. And she knew how to care for people. To help them get well. She shared, with my dad, this unfailing belief in the potential of the United States to transform itself and rebuild from the foundations of radical justice-making and human connectedness that exist alongside the extreme racial, economic, terrestrial and gender traumas that form the bases of the nation. I think that combination is important to hold onto as we imagine (and recollect) new worlds, new societies, new ways of being human with each other.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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