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A Feature Review of
Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering
Rosemarie Freeney Harding with Rachel Elizabeth Harding
Paperback: Duke University Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Ric Hudgens
Near the end of this utterly unique mother-daughter memoir Rosemarie Freeney Harding (1930-2004) writes: “Grandma Rye and those old Africans put something in the ground. When they got here, they stepped off those boats, chained up and weary. They looked around at this new land and they could see the heartbreak and suffering that were waiting for them and their generation. They saw these traumas waiting for us here. And they knew we were going to need something strong. Some medicine. Some spirit medicine to carry us through these storms.”
Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering is a record of Harding’s journey, the journey of a generation, in drawing upon that spirit medicine as a resource for healing and transformation. Harding is perhaps not as well known as her husband Dr Vincent Harding (1931-2014) and yet this volume is a testament to the individuality of her creative imagination, her deep mystical spirit, and the core of her sacred activism. She was an organizer, teacher, social worker, and co-founder of the Veterans of Hope Project at the Iliff School of Theology.
The book is both autobiography and biography. Daughter and co-author Rachel Elizabeth Harding (Professor of Indigenous Spiritual Traditions, University of Colorado, Denver) notes the “voice of the text is now a mixed utterance.” Rachel drew upon her mother’s journals and other writings as well as many hours of taped conversations. She has woven her own words and her mother’s into a seamless flow that maintains a unified, distinctive voice. In Rachel’s words her mother modeled a “female-centered, indigenous wisdom about the world.” It is the elucidation of that indigenous, African wisdom contextualized in a contemporary North American environment during a cauldron of social, cultural, and political turmoil that makes the testimony in this volume illuminating and indispensable.
The book begins with the ancestors of Rosemarie Freeney in southern Georgia. It is in that soil and from that people that her own way of being in the world was formed. Rosemarie was born after her family had migrated to Chicago in the 1920s. The memoir describes her growth among a loving family of southerners living in the north and details both the beauty of African-American life in those early years and its gradual deconstruction in the subsequent decades. We are then taken back to Georgia as Rosemarie and her husband and children begin a new work in Atlanta during the height of the civil rights movement. In the final third of the book the story pushes outward and inward exploring the edges of spirit, pain, wisdom, and mystery. It is impossible to finish reading this book with any assumption that you have exhausted it.
Remnants provides a unique perspective on the spirituality of liberation and resistance embodied in the the southern freedom movement. It explores how those involved in that movement endured the inherent trauma of the struggle. It expands our understanding of the spiritual resources they utilized. Recent studies of the civil rights movement have explored its origins in the Black church. Rachel Harding however argues that African-American spirituality “had a source more profound than any anguished nineteenth century conversion to the faith of their oppressors.” Her mother’s witness is evidence of that assertion.
In an early section entitled “Ground” the Hardings honor the witness and inheritance of their ancestors, descendants of slaves in the period between Reconstruction and the Great Migration. It was the experience of living close in time to those African ancestors and close in space to the ground upon which they landed that provided an intimacy of soul that they could continue to commune with. Ancestors and elders embodied the wisdom of the past and therefore required respect as a resource for survival.
Rosemarie recalls an automobile accident during her childhood. One of the adults was hurt and had to be taken to the hospital (if they could find one willing to treat them). The children were told to wait in the car for their return which they did. Harding interprets their obedient waiting as a metaphor for “remembering the will of the elders, now ancestors, and staying together on anxious ground.”
In the 1920s the lessons of “staying together on anxious ground” carried the Freeney family north to Chicago; first in Woodlawn and later in Altgeld Gardens. Rosemarie’s memories here parallel the stories told in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. The close family relationships, both nuclear and extended, provided Rosemarie with a model of healthy community that continued to guide her in both professional social work and her later work with her husband in Atlanta during the early 1960s. It was in Chicago that Rosemarie first explored her gifts as a mediator and healer and began to understand that healing was an important form of activism.