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Sunday, January 20, 2013

On Richard A. Long (1927-2013)

Richard A. Long (February 9, 1927-January 4, 2013): A Spirit Not a Ghost


In the final scene of Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998), the poet Amiri Baraka, portraying the streetwise voice of wisdom, eulogizes: “You’ve got to be a spirit not a ghost.”  Had one asked Richard A. Long about this film, he might have given a brief answer: “It’s entertainment.”  Then, looking at, through, and beyond you, he might have added “Ought we not consider Oscar Micheaux’s contribution to cinema?” In fewer than a dozen words, Long would have delivered a seminar as he archived Baraka’s eulogy for a more needful time.

Dr. Long was more than a scholar and a gentleman.  He was a presence, a thoroughly cosmopolitan presence.  I last talked with him the 2012 College Language Association Convention.  At 85, he was as radiant and magnetic as he had been when I first meet him four decades earlier at one of his legendary CAAS meetings at Atlanta University.  He belonged to that generation of African American intellectuals who assumed they were entitled to have a humanistic worldview, to arm themselves with knowledge of countries and cultures as they shaped African American scholarship, teaching, and a complex intellectual tradition.  Even when we could not agree with their ideologies and idiosyncrasies, we younger scholars always had the greatest esteem for their sacrifices and their authority.

Dr. Long’s authority was grounded in his breadth of knowledge about languages, literature, the visual and plastic arts, history, dance, music, and linguistics.  We who mourn the deaths of so many African American thinkers and artists in 2012 are obliged to honor yet another spirit who is not a ghost. He continues to be a presence in a different plane as we recall the people he knew, the lives he touched, the places he visited, and the integrity of his service to such institutions as Atlanta University, Emory University, the College Language Association, and the Association for the Preservation of the Eatonville Community by way of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival Planning Committee.  Dr. Long was noted for mapping his own location in the world by casual references to such figures as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Romare Bearden, Hoyt W. Fuller, Leon Damas, Rex Nettleford, Stephen Henderson, and Roberta Flack.  There was a peculiar legitimacy in this habit, for Dr. Long indeed enjoyed more than casual relationships with the people about whom he spoke.  One was awed by the fact that he knew everyone who mattered; one was awed too by his intimate knowledge of the Harlem Renaissance, black dance, black literature and the theatre. And how fondly I recall his lecture on Edward Said’s book Orientalism as a model of our responsibility to control how African Diaspora and African American cultures are talked about and evaluated.  Extracted from its cinematic context, Amir Baraka’s intoning “You’ve got to be a spirit not a ghost” is a mantra for remembering Richard A. Long.


To experience how poetry can assist us in remembering the spirit of Dr. Long, dwell awhile with this segment from René Char’s “Partage Formel” (“Formal Share”):


At the threshold of gravity, the poet like the spider constructs

his path in the sky.  Partially hidden from himself, he appears to

others, in the light beams of his unbelievable ruse, mortally visible.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

January 20, 2013

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