Tribute to Two Real Soul Brothers: Vincent Harding & Sam Greenlee
By Stephane Dunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Wednesday, May 28,
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
cannot rise to challenge the images
might fashion from their lives.
easier to build monuments
build a better world. – Carl Wendell Hines Jr.
I was in my first year of graduate school and taking an African American
literature course with the late Dr. Erskine Peters. He had a ton of excellent
texts on his syllabus and an extensive supplementary reading list. I was amazed
that there were still so many definitive African American books that I still
hadn’t read. From early on, eighth grade through high school, I couldn’t get
enough of reading autobiographies, novels, and essays by African American
writers. In college, I’d seemingly read most of the few African American
writers assigned. But the list of writers and books my professor gave the class
I determined to read as many as I could and I started with one whose title
grabbed me – There is a River (1981);
the author’s name was once I recognized in association with Dr. King. I read the whole of it the very day that I
started reading. When I read his gorgeous prose about the black freedom
struggle, about our continuous resistance at every point, I was utterly amazed
and delighted. It led me to Denmark Vesey’s place in Charleston years later and
to other stops along the way to trying to fill in the blanks and discover more
courageous, defiant black folk than the couple that dotted history books when I
was growing up. I reread it the summer following that school year.
Since then I’ve picked There is a
River up many times, almost as much as I’ve listened to one of the most
important speeches Dr. King ever delivered, “Beyond Vietnam,” which exhibits
the genius of its architect, the unassuming, brilliant, passionate seer,
historian Dr. Harding. The blue stickies marking passages I wanted to remember
and loved are still in the book, which is literally worn to point of falling
apart at the seam.
I was too embarrassed to present it in that condition to Dr. Harding to
sign when I had the great pleasure of speaking to him when he spent the
semester at Morehouse as a distinguished visiting professor. But it was far
more important that I got to listen to him up close, be blessed by his
undiminished intellectuality and socio-political insight, and witness his grace
and beautiful dignity. I was able to grasp his hand and tell him how meaningful
the ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech is to me and to say bless you for There is a River; I keep returning to
The second year of graduate school, I dated a guy who asked if I’d ever
seen The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973), the story of a black CIA agent who
uses his training to organize an urban black revolution against white supremacy. He was crazy about it; it was a sacred
cult classic to he and his friends. I’d found a copy of the book, written by
author and poet Sam Greenlee, for like three bucks in a dusty bookstore in
college, but I’d never seen the film adaptation. He had it and so we watched
I literally cannot remember any of our dates save that evening we spent
watching, then discussing and debating The
Spook Who Sat by the Door. Greenlee
and Ivan Dixon had written the screenplay; it showed the evidence of the
guerilla-style filmmaking and the budget limitations but it did not diminish
the representation of the thoughtful, compelling revolutionary implications.
The film was literally too hot to handle for the studio execs and theatres when
it came out as the story goes and was hardly in theatres before disappearing.
The film too stayed on mind and spirit and of course I eventually got a VH1
then DVD copy of the film. I did not know that a few years later it would be
the subject of a chapter in my book, Baad
Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black
Power Action Films.
I spoke – or rather choked on the telephone - with Sam Greenlee a few
months ago for a all of two minutes. Even via phone, I was excited just like the first time I’d spoken to him a year before
when my partner in life who had made his acquaintance did most of the talking
with the phone on speaker. I wanted to arrange a screening of The Spook and a discussion with Greenlee
at Morehouse; he was very willing, but it took awhile to secure some funding.
Fast forward to that recent two minutes on the phone. He still had that certain
tone of urgency that folks who are intense, thinking, busy folks have though it
was definitely a bit fainter. He was still willing but couldn’t travel; he’d
been ill over the past year. He told us to check
back with him this coming June. I’d see a photo of him posted on one
Internet site or another in a wheel chair right around the same time.
It’s movingly meaningful that these two real soul brothers passed on the
same day, on Malcolm X’s birthday, at eight-two and eighty-three
respectively. In a discussion about Dr.
King once, Vincent Harding referenced the poem by Carl Wendell Hines, ‘Jr. :
”Dead Men make such convenient heroes .
. . it easier to build monuments . .
It is no small thing to choose to be voices for justice and life-long
critics of injustice, no small thing to have created a masterpiece in words or
a compelling film that speaks across time from history to present chaos with an
unapologetic demand for revolution. This is work that should be accorded the
tribute of active introduction and passing on to generations now and later. It
is this hope that the prophetic Dr. Harding wrote of so eloquently in his introduction
of There Is a River:
I write in hope that some men and women will read the words and recognize that
they/we are the essential force, are the river, are the vision. I write,
trusting that some parents and grandparents and teachers will read aloud and
share this with the children, will become new sources of memory . . .
Dunn, PhD, is a writer who directs the Cinema, Television, &
Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She teaches film, creative
writing, and literature. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black
Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press). Her writings have
appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, and Best African American Essays, among others. Her
recent work includes the Bronze Lens-Georgia Lottery Lights, Camera
Georgia winning short film Fight
for Hope and book chapters exploring representation in Tyler Perry's