Conversation
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
between Ken Lawrence and Vincent Harding
Summer 1981

Mississippi activist Ken Lawrence interviewed Vincent Harding in March at Tougaloo College while Harding was Tougaloo's humanist-in-residence.

KL: I recall a number of years ago seeing a list of materials made available by the Institute of the Black World, a significant portion of which were tapes of talks given by C. L. R. James and articles by him, and so forth. So I know that his work and his thought significantly shaped what you were trying to do then.

VH: I think that for me, I have a two-part debt to C. L. R. One is organizationally, primarily through his relationship to the Institute. The other is personally. I think I should say something about the personal level first.

I think that the most direct contribution by C. L. R. has been that he was one of the persons who initially read the first version of the manuscript that I've been working on for a long time on the history of the Black struggle for freedom in this country. He read it when it was in a different shape and form, but he was his usual very disciplined and very caring self, and he read it carefully, and expressed great appreciation for it, and raised some crucial questions about what I was doing and how. And I think that both the sense of appreciation and encouragement, and the critical questions were of tremendous value to me in my thinking about what I was doing, and how I should be doing it. So C. L. R. is someone whom I appreciate very, very much, from that perspective of his very open response to my own initial struggle to develop the work that's now begun to be published as There Is A River.

The other thing on a personal level is that C. L. R. was always a kind of inspiration to me as one of the persons who was in very many deep senses a truly revolutionary scholar a revolutionary scholar who was based, for a long time, outside the traditional institutions of scholarship. And that is another important personal model for me, and I have great appreciation for that.

I also felt that he has a role in the history of our struggle in this country that has not been sufficiently appreciated, and which I am trying to clarify in the second volume of my history of our struggle, because I'm trying to talk about the way in which, in very different senses, he and DuBois and Robeson were a kind of bridge from one period of our struggle to another in a sense from the pre-World War Two period to the post-World War Two period. I think that C. L. R. deserves careful thought, in his work, in his energy, in his insight into the particular and special role of Black people in the transformation of American society. He was of great importance to me and I've been trying to present that as a part of the history of our struggle.

So, on a number of levels I feel this personal debt, and of course have always seen his work, especially Black Jacobins, as a kind of exemplary model of the historical development of a history of a people's struggle. And reading that, and thinking about it, and reflecting on it and hearing him talk about it has been quite helpful to me.

And I guess the other thing about C. L. R. that is related to the point at which I began, is that he has always been the warmest and most encouraging kind of, in a sense, father in the work, and has made every effort whenever he could, certainly to encourage me both in my own individual work and in the development that we were engaged in when we were founding and developing the Institute of the Black World. So that's a second area, the relationship of C. L. R. to the development of our institute, because he was certainly one of the earliest supporters of what we were trying to do in developing an institution for which there were very few models, that would try to take a radical perspective on the history of Black people in America and try to develop a radical perspective on the future of Black people in America, and try to share that perspective with as broad a grouping of people as possible.

C. L. R. was not only supportive in terms of encouraging us to do this work those of us who were working at the organizing of it but he made himself available to come to some of our early seminars when we were establishing the legitimacy of the institution. And his work, especially his presentations having to do with how he developed Black Jacobins, and some of the other things that he presented as a part of his time with us, were all important contributions to the life and work at the early stages of the institute's development. He also was a faithful financial contributor to the institute, and one of those nurturers and encouragers who constantly need to come from one generation to the aid of another generation.

One of the things I might say about C. L. R. is that he had a very warm spot for my family as well. He stayed in our home on a couple of occasions and we just considered him to be a very special human being. I have a lot of memories, good memories.

KL: I share many of the same personal attachments and feelings for him. He stayed with my family several times. I think that from my own experience I would have to say that it parallels much of what you've said. You were more careful, either in your choice of words, or else perhaps you were more self-motivated in your response than I'd have been. I know from my standpoint it's fair to say that some of the most important work that I've done, both on my own and with other people, was like that. But I think, for example, the largest project of my career was certainly the collecting and editing and publishing the slave narratives, and that was entirely his conception.

It was his urging, that this was one of the most important tasks that could be undertaken, and his insistence that's what I was getting at his firmness, he wouldn't let us lose sight of the importance of it to the more day-to-day work of being a revolutionary, which is always something that's standing there ready to consume you. You can always get drowned in all of the emergencies that arise. And nevertheless it was his insistence and tyranny almost driving us, that these tasks need to be done, you have to find time for them whatever else you have to do, you have to do this too, that is the reason why those jobs got done. And I think without that, which certainly qualifies as encouragement, but a great deal more than that a firm guiding hand without that, I know it never would have gotten done.

VH: That's right very powerful encouragement.

KL: And I would say the same kind of thing about his criticism too. He was always very forceful, but by the same token he never talked down to or up to anybody, that I saw in my life. He would always take the issues for what they were, and if he was wrong you'd have to convince him, and if he wasn't, you were going to be convinced, no matter how much argument and discussion it took. But he was one of the most persuasive people I ever encountered.

VH: The other side of that, though, is that C. L. R. has not been able to at least the last time I heard about it has not been able to be pressed in the same way by others about doing some of the tasks that he must do. That whole question of his autobiography, and the priority that has to be given to it for the sake of us all. It's been very very hard for some of us who love him to know how to deal with him on the many things he's allowed to get in the way of that critical task in his own life. I don't know where he is on it now, and I hope that I'll be very surprised to be told that he's making great progress on it, but I'm very worried about that and I wish that there was somebody who could push C. L. R. in the same way that he has pushed many of us.

KL: I feel some of the same frustration. In that particular respect I'm almost amused to recall that the last time I asked him where he was on the project, he said, "I'm writing volume one." I bet he still is.

Let me ask you something on a different level. I've learned over the years from talking to a lot of people who have been influenced by him enormously that he's intervened in the world he's lived in in more ways than most people would be able to in several lifetimes, and he's had one kind of meaning to West Indian nationalists, and another kind of meaning to American and British Marxists, and another kind of meaning to younger Black freedom fighters in the civil rights and Black Power and revolutionary workers' movements. And yet the diversity of those movements is as great as ever; there's not an awful lot of coming together. But certainly he sees a unity of purpose and vision of all those movements. What do you think about that?

VH: It's an example of the fact that on certain political levels we can't necessarily use the' geometric theorem that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. The other side of that is, it may well be that because of his sense of overview, C. L. R. has seen a fundamental unity that people who are much too engaged in the day-to-day struggles, both for their goals and for the particular life of their particular organizations, may not be able to see or may not want to see. But I'm not surprised by the fact that people don't see the same kind of overview, or sense of oneness, that C. L. R. has, partly because he's had the benefit of a tremendous amount of experience and a reach of organizational contacts that in its very self, the fact that he has been able to encompass experience and people within this whole organizational gamut, gives him a kind of perspective that is not available to many of the kinds of people who are working at these particular sorts of tasks. So I think it's pretty understandable that it's quite possible for him to have a sense of over-arching vision that is not shared by many of the particular people in the particular fields.

One of the things that is simply in passing that I'd just like to throw in is that one of my best memories of C. L. R. is the style of his lecturing when he was with us at IBW, and of course I've seen him do it elsewhere this wonderfully disciplined way of sitting down and taking out his watch and scattering his notes in front of him and saying: "It is now 7:45, and I will speak until 8:45 and then I will answer questions," and going on to do precisely that.

KL: Yes. A lot of times that was a very deceptive thing, in fact. Many times when he was in Chicago, right after he had been allowed to return to the United States, he was lecturing in a variety of places to all different kinds of audiences, ranging from activists who lived and worked in the deepest parts of the South Side ghetto to university audiences. I remember listening to what was ostensibly the same speech given on several occasions. The title of it was "The Contribution of West Indian Blacks to Western Civilization." The version that he gave at the University of Chicago left everyone in the room breathless, just breathless. And I asked him afterward why that had been so different from the previous couple of times I had heard the talk of that title because it was from the same lecture notes, took the same amount of time, and so forth. He said, "You've got to read your audience. You've got to know at every point how far you can push them, and I knew that I could take them all the way, and it was the first chance I'd had." I think I learned something from that, at least I tried to.

When C. L. R. spoke here at Tougaloo College in 1972, it was the only time I've ever seen a speaker here, at whose speech attendance was not required, first of all pack the hall, and secondly, by the time he'd been speaking about five minutes, everyone in the room was taking notes. They knew that this was something they didn't want to get away from them. That too was a marvel to behold; not many people have those abilities. A few hours earlier he had astonished the faculty members who were having cocktails with him by giving an impromptu lecture on the fact that Mississippi had produced only two important writers Richard Wright and William Faulkner and what that meant to him.

VH: In the early seventies, C. L. R. was very well known and highly respected in the circles that I was a part of. One of the major problems that I recall us having in that '70 to '75 period was to get C. L. R. to stop taking speaking engagements all over the country, because if he had wanted to he could be going practically every day to speak somewhere, especially on campuses.

One of the things I remember with a combination of sadness and humor was a long conversation that C. L. R. and Harry Haywood had in our house in Atlanta. It was focused to a large degree and I just found it somewhat ironic and, as I said, somewhat sad, even though a lot of the development of the conversation also had its humor to it to see these two really experienced and gifted Black men literally arguing about which expression of Marxist ideology and organization was really best. I think with that experience it took both of them out of the mainstream of so much of Black life, and took their strengths away from that mainstream. I just have the feeling it would have been so much healthier if both of these men might have found some common ground and might have found ways of using their energy beyond those kinds of arguments that grew out of the experiences of the late twenties and thirties, that for them were very fresh wounds and very hard experiences. It's just amazing to me how alive they still were to them. I guess having approached maturity myself in the sixties, it was just very hard to feel the real significance of some of those ideological arguments that they were carrying on at that time, that had grown out of a period of 25 or 30 years before. It was quite an encounter; I don't know if they've ever had a public exchange of all those lines, but the private one was very powerful.

KL: If not they, he's certainly had similar exchanges with similar people over the years that I've witnessed. I had, I think, much the same feeling that you're expressing in a different context. It wasn't even in his presence, or with him confronting anybody. It was when I read for the first time Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, which is probably one of the most brilliant things he's written in his life. Particularly when we don't have such an urgent need for his political contributions, it will stand as a milestone to what we are and where we've been and where we're going, I think, in the most universal kind of way.

But the last chapter of Mariners, which is a polemic against Communist Party people, was so dissonant that it shocked me, and I've never been able to reconcile the two parts of that book. And yet there's no doubt that it was burning him deeply while he was there waiting to be deported as he wrote the rest of the book. From his standpoint it's probably a vital statement of something important, but I could never see it that way. On the other hand that book has certainly inspired me, particularly as somebody who got involved in things a little bit before the sixties, so I still had many of the diseases that were imposed by what we called the Old Left once we got into the sixties particularly a certain attitude toward culture and intellectual pursuits gener- ally, that it was sort of forbidden, not proletarian enough, or something like that. He certainly rescued me from that; not only were my interests, in literature or music or whatever, legitimate, but they were essential to the world we're trying to create.

Vincent Harding is the director of the Institute of the Black World and author of The Other American Revolution.

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