Vincent Harding: Let Us Dance

The civil rights leader’s reflections on his 80th birthday.
Vincent Harding

Dear Friends,

This letter emerges out of a very special moment in my own life. Not long ago (July 25, 2011, to be exact) I experienced the magnificent joy of reaching my 80th birthday. As I considered my life—and all of you who have shared so many of our ongoing struggles toward “a more perfect union,”—I felt a profound and beautiful sense of bestowal. Ever since my Harlem childhood church days I have been taught that gifts were meant to be shared. So it seemed only natural to reach out to you and share this great experience of beneficence.

Among the many examples of the encouraging gifts that I wanted to open to you, one of them comes from an experience that occurred in the days just prior to my birthday. On the evening of July 23 (one day after my brother, Danny Glover’s birthday) I sat outside on a sprawling Denver lawn with nearly 2000 other persons in a magnificent escape from our city’s version of the American summer furnace. But we were not simply escaping, we were drawn together by the extraordinary power of one of Denver’s great contributions to the world, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company.

For the second successive year Cleo’s company, an amazingly gifted group of predominantly African-American, multi-racial dancers and drummers, had invited a dozen varied dance organizations from around the Denver metropolitan area to participate in “The Mile High Dance Festival.”

For several reasons, the night was significant for me. Not only did my magnificent sister, Cleo, try to lead the crowd in a Stevie Wonder “Happy Birthday” song to me. More importantly, I saw again the social and creative genius of this woman, her gifted company and her marvelous family. Child of an interracial marriage (at a time when that could be a dangerous choice in America), over the last 41 years Cleo has continued to ground herself and her company in the great musical creativity of America’s black communities. And from that deep and solid base she has continued, unfalteringly to reach out to the rest of America, lovingly, graciously inviting them onto the powerful ground that her choreographic genius and her humane giftedness have created. On Saturday night, July 23, that rich reality was palpable, and I loved it. It was a great gift.

Significantly enough, the beauty of the setting Cleo created was not focused in the work of her company. True to the generosity of her spirit, her company was scheduled last among the 12 groups of performers. But something else was at work that night at the Dance Amphitheater where we gathered next to her company’s educational building. By the time the first 5 or 6 hundred members of the audience had gathered on the lawn, and from that point on, it was clear that this was an endeavor unlike any other likely to be seen in Denver (or in most other American locations) at this time in history. The variety of people who were streaming into the outside space was remarkable. It appeared to me (and to others I checked with) that the racial/ethnic make-up of the gathering was approximately 40-50 percent Anglo (our local term for “white”) and 50-60 percent people of color, every possible shade of color. It was a beautiful kaleidoscope, and I wondered if others were just inhaling it in the way I was, giving thanks to the Creator for such magnificent testimony to the variety of human life. What was also obvious was the sprawling presence of children, everywhere, all kinds, all ages, in all possible ways of being and acting.

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Throughout the night my eyes were practically glued on the children when I was not looking at the great variety and creativity of the many dance styles performed on the stage. Most often, the children were watching, carefully, almost seeming to study the performances. In some times and situations that night, younger children would stand up in their places and mimic the movements being acted out before them. I thought about, wondered about, what they were seeing, learning, feeling. And my heart was tempted to sink when I thought about all the so-called educational institutions who say they cannot afford to make it possible for children to engage in this most human activity in the course of their schooling. But I refused to give in to the despair and instead gave thanks for Cleo and all her co-creators around the city and the world. I saw them teaching the children, learning from the children, opening great spaces for the children to dance and breathe and live. And I knew that any education for a humane community must open spaces for the children to dance and dream, the way I watched them on that evening at the Amphitheater. I knew we must ultimately open spaces for the children to discover each other, dancing, walking, jumping, singing—or just finding wonderful ways to enjoy and engage each other.

I took all this experience with the children as a magnificent Saturday night birthday gift. Now I am happy to share it with you and your children, our children, all of them, everywhere—from Denver to Afghanistan. Let them, let us, dance toward life.

In hope and struggle,
Vincent Harding  


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