“The integration of our being, the integration of our experience, the integration of our history, that is the meaning of community for me.” Vincent Harding, 1988
With the spirit and lessons of Kwanzaa in mind, we present an unedited, audio clip of Vincent Harding’s magnificent address, “Community as a Liberating Theme in Civil Rights History,” delivered at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Civil Rights in 1988. A truncated version was published in New Directions in Civil Rights Studies, a volume edited by Patricia Sullivan and the late Armstead Robinson. As some readers are probably well aware, the Center for the Study of Civil Rights was housed in the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies during the second half of the 1980s. This audio of Harding’s address at the Center’s “First Annual Civil Rights Conference” clocks in around 48 minutes, but be not dismayed, there’s never a dull moment. Especially intriguing is Harding’s commentary on the need for civil rights scholars to grapple with the meaning of “community” and “spirit” in their work. To those historians working on the civil rights phase of the black freedom struggle, he queries:
“Is it possible that our spirit needs to be more in sync with the spirit of the movement in order adequately to catch that movement?”
On a related note, Harding also invites critical reflections on the complex meanings and uses of “community” within the black freedom struggle. Of course, community as living archive, community as object of critical inquiry, community as motive force, are recurrent themes in Harding’s scholarly work, from his collaborative endeavors with the Institute of the Black World, to his theoretical dictates in my favorite essay of his, “The Vocation of the Black Scholar,” to his classic text, There Is a River.
Perhaps sensing that some of the conference attendees would misread his call for a deeper engagement with the idea of “community” as a request for more “local studies,” Harding offers a more expansive definition of community:
“I am referring to a way of being, a way of human beings relating to each other. I am talking about the coming together of human beings in such a way that they may enhance their mutual humanness beyond the point to which it has now come. That, I understand, to be the meaning and purpose of community. Community is a way of being among humans and, at times, non-humans such as to integrate the meaning of our past, our present and our future together.”
When I first came across the audio of Harding’s speech, it was nothing more than a small piece in my puzzle of discovery; one of the many, brief stops on my journey to deepening my knowledge of the institutional history of Black Studies at UVA, gaining a better sense of Armstead Robinson’s intellectual work. But this past fall, Harding’s address took on new meaning. Particularly on the set of the film “Black Fire,” the pedagogical and spiritual power of “community” was palpable in ways that I could have never imagined. At the heart of this film about Black Studies, Vivian Verdell Gordon, and African American student life at UVA during the 1970s is the story of community in motion, a story about people finding love and meaning in the warmth of human relationships.
So for the past two months, I’ve been trying to blog about this audio and its relationship to the Black Fire project, but words fail me. Perhaps they always will when it comes to some things. But I reckon what Vincent Harding confirms for me is simple and requires no written eloquence on my part: This film/this project/this site was for our students (past and present), it was for Vivian Gordon, and it was and will be for the yet unborn.
We will win!