Thursday, March 26, 2009

Honoring Greatness

There are those special people who touch your life so evocatively that things will never be the same again. The sanctified folks call it an anointing. Others refer to it as a unique quality, a special gift that impacts others in a significant way. I’ve learned to not take the role of those people for granted. I have met three of them: Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, Dr. Samuel Procter and Dr. John Hope Franklin.

I met each of these great men through my studies at Duke University. I decided to move from Missouri to Durham, NC to study due to the contributions of C. Eric Lincoln and John Hope Franklin. I was amazed at their ability to press beyond the obvious.

Lincoln’s book The Black Muslims in America introduced to the world the mind of the Nation of Islam. I wanted to sit at his feet. I came to Duke to take classes with Lincoln. All I needed was one. I loved his humor and bent on life. To this day I laugh whenever I think of the time he told us the story of his temptation to become a minister. He talked about how he practiced preaching in front of a mirror and was certain he could fascinate people with his preaching.

Sam Proctor came to Duke as a visiting professor. By the time he arrived I had graduated. This didn’t prevent occasions for us to meet over lunch to discuss faith and life. I’ll never forget the day he called Alvin Bernstein while we were at the Duke Divinity School book store. “You guys need to pick up The History of God by Karen Armstrong,” he said. We both did. “It will open your eyes...” It did.

Arvil Strickland, my African American History professor at the University of Missouri used Franklin’s book like the Bible. From Slavery to Freedom told the story of our past like no other. I came to Duke because I wanted to walk on the ground where he taught. I’ll never forget our first encounter. I was picking up Chinese food when he walked in to get his take out order. He smiled at the cashier-there was something about this man that stood apart from others.
“Dr. Franklin,” I approached him. “I’m Carl Kenney and I love your work.”

“Carl Kenney,” He said. “I love your work.” My heart stopped beating. He knew my work. His words reflected more of a statement about him than about me. He was in touch with the world around him. Despite his work with President Bill Clinton, and his travels around the world, he found time to read the local newspaper. He was a gentle man. The struggles of his past had not hardened his heart, but rather shaped a man full of faith and love.

Franklin died on yesterday. He left behind countless imprints. Many have been moved by his gentle spirit. Yes, many know his scholarship. Others simply knew the man. From Victor and the boys at Imperial Barbershop next to the Hayti Heritage Center to D.J. Kraze and the patrons of the Ideas Coffee House-Franklin has made an impression that we will never forget.

I called my friend Dante James to check on him yesterday. As a documentary film maker, James has garnered inspiration from the sages. He thought of them when he worked on “Eyes on the Prize”. They walked with him as he produced “Slavery and the Making of America.” I felt his pain as we spoke.

“This is hard Carl,” he said. “This is really hard’.

I reflected on the conversation I had with Dante about Gordon Parks. I imagined then how it must have felt to have a conversation with him. I considered how blessed I have been to walk in the steps of greatness-C. Eric Lincoln, Samuel DeWitt Proctor and John Hope Franklin-three men who are no longer with us.

I approached a stop light near the intersection of HWY 54 and HWY 55 in Durham. As the light turned red I said a prayer. “God, remind me, mold me, teach me,” I paused. “To be more like these great men." I stand on the foundation built by their efforts. I pray for this generation. Our leaders are dying. Our inspiration is dying. Our strength is dying away. Grant us the strength we need to be more like them. “


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