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Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering

Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering

by Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Rachel Elizabeth Harding

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An activist influential in the civil rights movement, Rosemarie Freeney Harding’s spirituality blended many traditions, including southern African American mysticism, Anabaptist Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Remnants, a multigenre memoir, demonstrates how Freeney Harding's spiritual life and social justice activism


An activist influential in the civil rights movement, Rosemarie Freeney Harding’s spirituality blended many traditions, including southern African American mysticism, Anabaptist Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Remnants, a multigenre memoir, demonstrates how Freeney Harding's spiritual life and social justice activism were integral to the instincts of mothering, healing, and community-building. Following Freeney Harding’s death in 2004, her daughter Rachel finished this decade-long collaboration, using recorded interviews, memories of her mother, and her mother's journal entries, fiction, and previously published essays.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This collaboration between the late social justice activist and organizer Harding and her daughter Rachel Elizabeth (A Refuge in Thunder) is a spirited compilation of ecumenical history, folk wisdom, fiction, memoir, and poetry. Harding, who died in 2004, developed and crafted the bulk of this endearingwork that traces the unique history of African Americans in the southern U.S. and their mystic divine belief that transcends monotheism. The central message of Harding’s life is abiding love, passed down through generations, strengthened in the aftermath of grief, racial terrorism, and trauma. The book also tells the unusual story of Mennonite House, a pioneering center of interracial activism in Atlanta co-founded by Harding and her husband, and offers other insights that shape its powerful narrative. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
A collaborative memoir in two voices that celebrates the life, creativity, and accomplishments of a little-discussed but no less important female civil rights activist.Rosemarie Harding (1930-2004) never achieved the iconic status of Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. Yet she made many significant contributions to the civil rights movement, especially in the work she did to connect spirituality to the larger project of social justice. In this memoir, Harding tells the story of her life through a series of personal essays, fictional stories, and poems, which her daughter, Rachel, interweaves with her own memories and observations. The child of Georgia-born African-Americans who had migrated north to escape racism and violence, Harding grew up in the relative safety of Chicago. But when she was in her early 20s, she returned to the South with her husband as part of a church-based mission to use reconciliation and peacemaking as tools in the struggle for civil rights. Christianity was only one of the spiritual traditions upon which Harding drew for her work. Over time, she incorporated insights from others—including Tibetan Buddhism and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé—to help the African-American community transcend generations of "collective trauma." In the words of her daughter, Harding's ultimate goal was to teach people how to transform their pain and anger into "something useful...a song, a dance [or] some poetry for those following behind." Her own life eventually became a study in finding spiritual balance when she was diagnosed with an especially pernicious form of diabetes. Fighting for her dignity, Harding would come to a deeply visceral understanding that the journey to wholeness began from the " ‘remnant' quality of spirit" within the self that allowed for hope to shine through, even in the most desperate of circumstances. A wise and humane memoir.
Alice Walker
"Remnants is an extraordinary gift. It is a kind of Rosetta Stone of the African American Woman's soul—all the 'remnants,' the bits and pieces Rosemarie carefully saved, remembered, nurtured, in her ancestors, relatives, and self coming together in this extremely useful compendium of wisdom, of sureness and insight that we will be able to use for generations to come."
Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil - Emilie M. Townes
"I could not put this book down.  It is a work of love and a testament to the power of love between a mother and her daughter and an abiding belief in the possibilities we have to help create a more loving, humane world.  This is a book of astounding beauty and wisdom.  This is a memoir that encourages us to live into our best self. It is a read more than worthy of your time and will linger in your head and heart."
Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred - M. Jacqui Alexander
"A unique and provocative crossover text, Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel Elizabeth Harding's Remnants troubles the boundaries of authorship, of genre, of discipline, of voice and agency. It hovers at the boundaries of the sacred and secular, but knits them together in the daily lives of practitioners and communities for whom a division is untenable, unthinkable even. It impels us to think deeply about the meaning of politics and the kinds of hidden intimacies that make committed public engagement possible, without succumbing to the unhelpful public/private binary. We need the stories of the kinds that are recounted here."
Emilie Townes

"I could not put this book down.  It is a work of love and a testament to the power of love between a mother and her daughter and an abiding belief in the possibilities we have to help create a more loving, humane world.  This is a book of astounding beauty and wisdom.  This is a memoir that encourages us to live into our best self. It is a read more than worthy of your time and will linger in your head and heart."
Public Books - Imani Perry
"Co-authored by Rachel and her late mother, [Remnants] is in its very composition both intimate and collaborative. ...It is a book of returning to the source as a resource for the future and present. There are lessons about human connection and resilience, and our capacities to be better to one another. Out of the particulars of these two lives, a window opens into Black life more broadly, in all of its complexity and interconnectedness with the vast networks of humanity."
The Mennonite Quarterly Review - Dean J. Johnson
"Remnants will appeal to those who are interested in religion and social transformation. Social change advocates, justice seekers, grassroots organizers, nonviolent revolutionaries, race critical theorists, theologians, clergy, historians, womanists, ethicists, ancl educators will all find gems within Remnants.... Remnants provides hope for a better humanity."

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A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering

By Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Rachel Elizabeth Harding

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7558-6


(the light)

I can't say exactly where the Light entered, where it started from. Suddenly, it was just there with me. A white light, bright enough that it should have hurt to look. But it didn't hurt. In fact, as the Light grew and enveloped everything in the room, I felt the most astonishing sense of protection, of peace. It surrounded me and I was in it, so joyfully. I don't know how long I was engulfed by this Light, this space. But when I came out of my room my family was looking at me oddly, like there was something different about me they couldn't quite name.

It was an afternoon when I was about twenty-one. I had been in my room, just resting. Aunt Mary and Mama Freeney them were in the living room. My Aunt Hettie too. Some cousins, a sister, a friend. Our house was always full of family. I had come in from work and greeted everyone awhile. Then I went into my bedroom to rest. I was just lying on the bed. Maybe dozing. And then I was in the Light.

"Baby, you alright?" they asked me when I stepped out of the room. They said my face looked different, more peaceful. I smiled, and told them I was fine. Because I was. Whatever came to me, that afternoon in my room, left me with a great sense of comfort.

The Light became a kind of touchstone in my life. It was so much love. Like an infinite compassion. At the same time it was something very precious and intimate. It awed me, really. And when I walked out of the room, everything looked different. Clear. Even later, outside the house, in my classes and at my job, everything looked sharper. It was like a heightened sense of presence. Almost a shine.

I never wanted to talk about it much, because it seemed proud to do so. Also because it wasn't the kind of experience one could easily describe.

I believe Mom and Dad and the family had already given me a foundation in forgiveness and compassion. I received such care as a child. Already, growing up, I wanted to be a nurse. I tended to my nieces and nephews whenever they were ill and Mom even sent me to check on neighbors who were not feeling well. There was a German family named Anderson that lived down the street from us and ran a cleaners. The son had horrible asthma attacks. Mrs. Anderson would call Mama Freeney for help when the attacks came and Mom would send me down the street to the pharmacy to get medicine and take it back to the Andersons' house. I'd give the boy his medicine and sit with him until he was breathing more steadily again. Mrs. Anderson would be so worried about her son, so agitated, that once someone else arrived to help, she usually left the room for a while. And I didn't mind staying.

I already had this leaning toward healing in my life. And the Light was so full of acceptance and care ... It fed that in me, I think.

Soon after the experience in my room, I was looking for a way to go deeper. I must have associated the Light with spirituality, in some sense; even though I didn't have a language to fully articulate it then. But I held it close to my heart. And I joined my sister Alma's church, Bethel Mennonite, on the West Side of Chicago.

I had visited Bethel a few times and as I got to know more about the Mennonites, I started to see that what they believed — about nonviolence and forgiveness, for example — resonated with what I had learned in my family. But mostly, I was looking for something spiritual to connect to, and my sister Alma was a model of kindness and integrity for me. I really admired Alma; and anything she thought was good, I thought was good.

I do believe that whole experience put me on a path. And the Light stayed with me a long time. It gave me a sense of security and deep internal connectedness to God, I would say. All these journeys I've been on, these spiritual practices and traditions — from the Mennonites to Bawa Muhaiyaddeen and the Dalai Lama — the meditation, the prayers; I've been trying to sustain what the Light gave me. What it awakened and showed me. I guess that's what the definition of "spirituality" is for me: whatever sustains us like the Light sustained me for years. Is it similar to the Light? Is it the Light?

As I moved away from my family and struggled for years with the unexpected strains of my marriage I needed the grounding and shelter and strength of that Light. There is something in there, in that profoundly embracing energy, that allows you to come out with a kind of forgiveness, an absence of animosity. It's like the Dalai Lama says, there's nothing we can't go through. We can live through it all with compassion. I want to tell you that this Spirituality of Compassion, if we can call it that, can come through very ordinary people. Look at me. I'm not particularly intelligent; I have my failings just like anybody else. And I'm certainly not the only one who has experienced this. There are so many ways — some people go through Vipassana meditation; some say they have seen Jesus; or that they've met the Buddha. However they describe it, they've met ... Help. Encouragement. A deep deep encouragement in this life. For me, it was the Light.


Rye's Rites (poem)

her broom. the sand of her yard. the bare feet of morning. sweeping circles in the dirt-dust. in the sun-rising. stick broom of straw. her breath. the strength of her heart. old strength. old love humming. sweeping a company for the sun. circles in the red dust. circles in the new air. stick trace. straw trace. passing straw along the ground. passing leaves along the ground. a little wind to move death.

My great-grandmother rose mornings before the household, washed her face and hands, rinsed her mouth. She climbed down the porch stairs to the backyard and chose between her fishing pole and her circle broom. The broom came first.

Grandma Rye is the furthest back we know. Somebody said she was an African. Landed in Virginia. Sold to Florida. In slavery-time she worked for the captain of a steamer, up and down the Carolina and Georgia coasts. She cooked. Some of her children died. Some of them she couldn't keep. The last of them, born close on to Freedom stayed with her. One by the captain, she named Ella; three by a man she loved, she named Eliza, Willoughby, and Hester.

My sister Alma is a praying woman. All of my sisters are praying women. When I am sick, Alma tells me Grandma Rye prayed for my health. All of our health. All of our blessing. All of our coming through. Her children, their children, their children's children.

Grandma Rye bends low and breathes on the sand. makes wind circles on the sand of her yard. sweeps death loose from georgia red dirt. cleanses it of venom. passes leaves over the deaths of her children. over the loss of her children. makes lines stretch. makes prayers stretch. passes straw over grief gone and coming. gives us a place in the world. a long-breathed prayer in labor. a way to heal. a trace ...


Grandma Rye

My great-grandmother, Mariah Grant, cooked on an open stove that looked like a big fireplace. She had a metal tripod where the cast-iron pots hung suspended over the heat. When she made cornbread, she poured the batter right into a ring of coals. Joe Daniels said it had the best taste.

Joe Daniels and Pansy are two of my older cousins. They grew up in Leesburg, Georgia, with all the family and Grandma Rye, which is what everybody called her. What we know about Grandma Rye is that she loved fishing. Every day, well into her nineties, she walked a dirt road into the woods to a place on the Kinchafoonee Creek and sat there with her cane pole and the worms and watched the water ripple out in front of her. Her great-grandchildren took turns going along to keep Grandma Rye company. Some liked the walk and the worms and the quiet, some didn't.

Grandma Rye's fishing spot was a few miles from town and on the way she pointed out flowers and plants, stopping sometimes to pick a stem and crush a few of the leaves between her fingers. "This one is what we gave to Pamp when she had fever last month. Takes the fever right out. You'll sweat a good while, but it breaks the heat." She'd put the crushed leaves to her nose and then hold them for the child to smell. They'd walk some more, Grandma Rye pointing her finger at a patch of blue blossoms near the base of a black walnut tree or pinching a couple of dark sweet berries from a bush so the girl or boy could taste them.

She was an herbalist. She was a slave in Florida when she was young and she learned about herbs and roots there. "Florida was full of herbs," she used to say. Had more than Georgia. According to my mother, Mama Freeney, the Black folks in Lee County hardly ever got yellow fever or jaundice because Grandma Rye knew what to make to keep everybody well. "She tried to show me when I was a girl," Mama Freeney told me. "I used to go fishing with my grandma and she tried to tell me, 'This is for the scarlet fever, and this is for when babies get croup.' I listened a little but I really wasn't paying attention like I should have been. I told her, I said, 'Grandma we got doctors now, we don't need all of that anymore.'" Grandma Rye might have looked out of the side of her eye at her granddaughter and half-smiled. She'd have put whatever she had in her hand into her apron pocket and then they would have walked on.

Other than stopping to show the child a few plants and trees, there wasn't a lot of conversation when the grands and great-grands went fishing with Grandma Rye. They'd get to the pond or the creek side and find a place to sit on a large rock, or a log, or up against the trunk of a tree. The old woman would bait her hook, then she'd cast out and sit. Waiting for a draw on the line and watching the shudders on the surface of the water. There just wasn't a lot of talking. If the child got tired he might lean his head in Grandma Rye's lap and doze a while. If it started to rain and the child awoke to ask, "Are we gonna go now, Grandma Rye?" she might tell him, "No, child. This is just a light one. It'll pass," and cover his head with her apron. And rest her hand on the child's forehead. Sure enough, the rain wouldn't last long. It was just a sprinkle really. A refreshment for the tall grasses and the canopy of trees. And for her.

You had to sit with Grandma Rye as long as she felt like staying. That's the part that could make it hard. Some children don't like to be quiet that long. The more noise you make, the more disturbed the fish are. The less noise you make, the sooner they'll bite. I know this even though I never knew Grandma Rye. I was two years old when she died. She stayed in Georgia with her daughter, Ella Stewart, when the rest of the family moved north. But I always loved fishing.

Fishing must have been a way to be still. They say Grandma Rye was quiet and she was strong. She lived to be 105. Already quite old when my sisters and brothers knew her, they said she cooked and cleaned for herself practically till she died.

The stillness was something my mom loved too. Although she didn't have many chances to fish once the family moved to Chicago, Mom found other ways to get it. There was someplace inside she'd go, especially in moments of distress. When a family member was in trouble, if a difficult decision had to be made, whenever she had something on her heart, Mama Freeney would get quiet. She could be in a room full of people, and it would be clear, after a moment, that she was also someplace else at the same time. She would close her eyes, maybe make a subtle hum to herself. A softness came over her in those moments, a kind of covering ...

I think Grandma Rye had this tendency too; the going inside and getting what she needed there to emerge a little stronger. That ability would have been essential, to come through what she came through in life. What we know about Grandma Rye is this: she loved fishing, she cooked and healed, and she had been a slave.

She could have been brought here from Africa as a small child. Some in the family heard it that way. Maybe she was born on this side of the water and it was her mother who came across in the Middle Passage. We're not certain. But this much we know: Mariah Grant was in Virginia as a young girl when somebody purchased her and carried her to Florida where she worked as a slave. She lived in Cedar Keys, and maybe in Tampa for a while as well. The man who owned her also owned a boat that sailed along the coast. My great-grandmother cooked for the man and his crew in the boat. She cooked in the kitchen of the master's household too. And when she was about eighteen years old, Mariah had a child by that master. She named her daughter Ella. Later, she had three other children by a man she loved and married: Robert Grant. That was Eliza, my grandmother; a son named Willoughby; and a daughter named Hester.

In those years, in Florida, Grandma Rye saw a lot of meanness. And she wondered about God.

In 1981, National Geographic magazine asked my husband to write an essay on the Underground Railroad. We decided to trace parts of the route ourselves, with our children, starting in Maryland and going through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and eventually up through Michigan into Canada. We were assigned a photographer and made our way into communities where the memories of slavery's traumas and escapes were kept among the descendants of those who had lived them.

In the midst of this, I talked to my mother about what she knew of Grandma Rye and our family's history. Mom was born around 1888 and her parents spent their early childhoods enslaved. She remembered that Grandma Rye talked of a friend who escaped from slavery in Cedar Keys, Florida. "More women than men got away," Grandma Rye had said. It was harder for the men to get away but both men and women were trying and some made it. There were white men who patrolled the roads and woods and the edges of the swamps, looking for fugitives. These were the paddyrollers, and they beat the people they caught to death.

I asked Mama Freeney if she had ever heard of Harriet Tubman, and she told me, "Yes, I've heard of Harriet Tubman. Grandma Rye talked about her ... but there were a lot of Harriets. Women like her, you know. And men too." People who risked their lives to get away and then came back, time and again, to rescue their children and parents and cousins and friends. "Oh Lord, yes," my mother remembered the stories. Yes, there were some, like Grandma Rye's friend, who made their way out.

My sister Alma, who is twelve years older than me, listened to our great-grandmother as a child. Grandma Rye told the youngsters gathered around her, looking up into her face, that slavery made her wonder about God. Slavery-time was so hard, she said, "The master's family had it so good and we were suffering so bad."

"We prayed a lot," Grandma Rye said. "And we thought about this God of the white folks, wondering who it was they were praying to. We thought maybe we should pray to this God as well. And we did. But times didn't get no better." Alma says that after a while Grandma Rye and the other slaves simply accepted their plight. Praying still, but not really hoping for more. But I think differently.

There is a lot of silence around Grandma Rye's spirituality in the family. We never talked about how our ancestors took on a new religion or what remained of the ways we had brought with us from Africa. But as I think about it now, so much in my mother and great-grandmother's manner in the world pointed toward rootedness, a very old strength. They were trusted women. They were healers. They were the ones others gave their money to when trying to save it for something important. Grandma Rye wouldn't return it to you until the agreed-upon time and circumstance, no matter how you insisted or cajoled. And Mama Freeney did the same. People came to them with fears and worries and angers and sadnesses and my mother and great-grandmother made those things into something else. Something lighter to carry.

I'm convinced, their spirituality had a source more profound than an anguished nineteenth-century conversion to the faith of their oppressors. And then, too, they transformed that faith once it was in their hands.

I have the feeling it wasn't a straight path from our ancestral ways to this new religion. It's still not a straight path. I think about the Native Americans, the way they were forcibly evangelized; so much taken away. Yet in their dances, like in ours, there remains a connection, an acknowledgment of the deepest and oldest aspects of their spirits. It's something in the body. Sometimes I wish I could talk to somebody who was there when Grandma Rye was questioning the Christian God, working out the transition. Figuring out what parts were useful, what parts should be ignored; and where the connections lay between what she already knew to be true of the world, true of herself and God, and what new things the struggle (to be human) in this land was teaching her.


Excerpted from Remnants by Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Rachel Elizabeth Harding. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rosemarie Freeney Harding (1930–2004) was an organizer, teacher, social worker, and cofounder of Mennonite House, an early integrated community center in Atlanta. She also cofounded the Veterans of Hope Project at the Iliff School of Theology.

Rachel Elizabeth Harding, daughter of Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Vincent Harding, is Assistant Professor of Indigenous Spiritual Traditions in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado, Denver, and author of A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness.

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