Education & Philosophy

Vincent Harding: "The America That Has Not Yet Been, Trying to Be Born"

Dr. Vincent Harding (1931 - 2014) offered these remarks as closing speaker at the 5th Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, held at the Center on September 20, 2008. The Forum’s theme was “Living with Mortality: How Our Experiences with Death Change Us.” Dr. Harding was Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Change at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and co-founder and chairperson, the Veterans of Hope Project.

Vincent Harding Remarks

I must say that you are a pretty good-looking bunch of folks! And I am glad that you took time out on a Saturday afternoon, a beautiful Saturday afternoon in this part of the world, to gather together to talk together, and to listen together, about things that are of great importance. That is not necessarily a very American way of life! [Laughter] But, as you will see, I have a deep feeling that a new America is trying to be born. [Applause]

I am glad, too, that Virginia [Benson], Masao [Yokota], and their comrades here [at the Center] have the good sense to make a space available for this kind of gathering. Because, as you will hear, again and again and again, I am absolutely convinced that there is no future for democracy in America unless we keep making spaces like this for us to come see one another, hear one another, touch one another, eat with one another, disagree with one another, affirm one another. This is absolutely necessary for the future of democracy in the United States.

So, my friends, I’m glad that you’ve had the patience and the perseverance to work on this for 15 years at the Center. Rosemarie Freeney Harding [Harding’s late wife, and former Center event speaker] would be very glad indeed that you’ve gone this far, and that I have the privilege of being here with you.

This matter of death and life and what it means for our country beyond our personal stories is what I’m trying to get at, at this point. At times, I am a seeker after an understanding of the story of this country, trying to understand: What is that story? Where does it come from? Where might it be leading? And, as with every other story in the life community, death and life must be a part of that story.

It was about a year ago, in the midst of 2007, that I began anticipating 2008. It began in ways that I simply cannot account for. I was having a deeper and deeper feeling – academics do have feelings! – that something was going to be very special about 2008.

I had that feeling partly because, I thought, 2008 was exactly 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., my friend and brother. I had that feeling partly because word had begun to emerge that in the 2008 elections, America would have a new kind of choice – one that it had never had before. So this business of 40 years, coming out of the Hebrew and Christian religious communities — this began to stick with me. Some of you know all about it. Forty years in the wilderness being prepared to know what it is to be the People of God. Some of you know about the 40 days in the wilderness, being prepared to know what it means to be the Son of God.

And as I worked with that number 40, I began talking to people about it. And one of the persons who was most helpful to me was my brother Arthur Waskow, rabbi and radical, who said that he was working with that theme and trying to understand why those Jews and why those Christians were so taken with this figure of 40. And as Arthur went through the texts, what became clear to him was that we needed to take very seriously the fact that while we have come to speak of human gestation, of a woman’s time of bringing a child to birth, as nine months, the original figure was 40 weeks.

This crazy academic likes symbols, and the sense kept growing within me that in my country something is trying to be born, and that that was what I was feeling.

And I heard Langston Hughes again:

America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

…Langston’s America, trying to be born; the America that has not yet been, trying to be born.

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be

That idea began to overwhelm my consciousness. And in my own strange kind of thinking, I began asking: Is it possible that what we need now are midwives? That what we need to be now are midwives? And I asked one of the most gifted midwives that I know to tell me what is at the heart of her work, and what she told me had almost nothing to do with what you might think. At the heart of the work, she said, is to be kind of a life coach, saying through words, and through actions, and through attitudes to the mother – “You can do this. You are able to do this. Don’t be afraid. You can do this!”

Is it possible that what we need now are midwives?

Vincent Harding

And I began wondering if this kind of birthing assistance is what this country needs. Who is going to say to this frightened country: “You can go beyond that fright. You can go beyond that fear. You can go beyond that pessimism about your possibilities”? Who is going to do that? That’s been working on me.

Then I came here and had the fascinating, wonderful experience of spending yesterday with these magnificent speakers, and I found that I had a kind of modern-day midwife here [Ikeda Forum co-convener Pam Kircher]. And I asked Pam, as we were talking about death – since she has lived so intimately and unafraid and comfortably with death – whether there is any death involved in the birth process.

And I was expecting her to say something about what the mother goes through, but wise woman that she is, Pam went immediately to the infant, which had been living a life that seemed totally safe and comfortable, having its needs supplied without having to do anything but be. What a life! But then…then it becomes necessary to lose that life – to die to that life, in order for a new life to begin.

And so I began to add to my team, not simply the midwives, but those who would be the hospice attendants, those who will let people be comfortable and assured that this dying is not a terrible thing but a necessary thing for whatever next stage they will know.

And it seemed to me, that this is where this matter of death and life for this country begins to make some real connections. For you know and I know so many people who believe that that comfortable darkness in which they now live is the best thing they could ever have, and that everything else is much too risky. And many of you know all the people who are quite sure that they cannot change the habits of their lives and try out a new America.

And what I thought about then was two of my dear friends. One of them used to be named Stokely Carmichael – someone I knew and loved. And Stokely once said to folks he was talking to: For racism to die in America, a whole new America will have to be born. And Martin Luther King Jr., coming out of his black Baptist background, finally toward the end of his life looked at America and its commitment to racism and to materialism and to militarism – as ways of life – and said, “America, you have to be born again.”

Not many people ever dreamed that Stokely and Martin would be carrying the same message [chuckles], but that’s the wonderful thing about life: All kinds of strange things happen without us really knowing that they have happened.

And so what I want to say at the end of my reflection on the need for a new birth – Lincoln spoke of a new birth of freedom, a new birth of America, a new birth of democracy, and a new birth of life and humanity — is something I trust you will hear carefully, because it comes out of great experience and great commitment to the new America. I have, at this point in history, a deep, deep conviction that the future of America and its capacity to take a new step in its growth and development will depend greatly on white people, [on people like] many of you gaining the courage to talk to other white people who are not like you – at least you think so and they think so – and raising this question of “Are we ready to be born again?” Are we ready to realize our best possibilities? Are we ready to go past the old ways and move in new directions? Carry on that conversation and see where it goes. I challenge you.

It is not enough to [just] talk about personal life and death after this kind of experience. Yes, America has to deal with the question: Are we ready to be born again, to find a new life? And I ask you to be the midwives and the hospice attendants and the troublemakers who insist that this conversation is absolutely necessary for us all. I leave that with you.

And I just want to give thanks for the fact that it’s possible for me to say this with Elise Boulding back there in the audience smiling away, because she has been such an inspiration to me. [It’s been so inspiring] for me to know that there are white Americans who can call for a new America without being afraid of what is to be lost – because they are so overwhelmed by the beauty and greatness of what is to be gained. And I am so glad that Mel King is here. And when I think what Mel King means to this Boston-area community and the commitment he has made to transform us all into our best possibilities, I’m very glad.

And, finally, I want to have you all listen to some music. What I’d like you to listen to is the last music that Martin Luther King Jr. heard before the bullet finally found its way to him at the Lorraine Motel as he was getting ready to go to dinner before the night’s mass meeting. He had heard the Bread Basket Band from Chicago, which Jesse Jackson had helped to organize. Ben Branch and his band had come to Memphis to play at the last mass meeting, not knowing it would be the last mass meeting. And Martin heard them practicing in the basement of the motel, and one of the things they were practicing was a rhythm-and-blues version of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” And just before going back into his room to get his coat, he leaned over the balcony and said to Ben Branch, the band leader and singer, “Ben, play Precious Lord tonight, and play it real good.” And those were his last words.

I would like you to hear the song that Martin took into his death. And I am absolutely convinced that anybody who took this song into his death is doing just fine.

The gathering then listened to an extended live version of “Precious Lord” performed by Ben Branch and the Bread Basket Band.