One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in the terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.
When Maxine Greene passed away on May 29, 2014, I felt that I’d lost more than a friend and a beloved teacher; I’d lost a significant part of myself as well. She was so vivid and powerful and animated one moment and then suddenly gone. The air left the room.
Many of us who loved her so much gathered to share stories and memories as we consoled one another—and we will do so again in a large public space in the Fall—and we laughed and we cried, always reminding ourselves that she had lived a long life—96 years!—largely of her own making and her own choosing, that she was purposeful and true to herself insisting until the end that “I am what I am not yet,” still pushing herself to pay attention and to be wide awake. She taught her last class just weeks before she passed away, and that’s pretty great as well.
Many have said hers was a complete life, and perhaps here I disagree. How is a life ever complete? When do the stories actually end? It’s more accurate I think to say that while death ends a life, it does not necessarily end a relationship. The screen goes dark, but the stories—stunning, alive, and on-going, our stories and your stories—are still unfolding, still in the making, still drawing from the deep well of her dazzling life.
Here are a few other giants who fell from us recently, each a relationship to nourish and continue, or to start up for the first time right now:
Vincent Harding, 82, who stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. and drafted the radical “Beyond Vietnam” speech, delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.
Yuri Kochiyama, 93, who was a friend and ally of Malcolm X, cradling his head in her lap as he lay dying, and was an activist over many decades, always encouraging and joining with the young, always bravely standing with the oppressed.
Carl Bloice, 75, courageous journalist and US Communist Party leader.
Chokwe Lumumba, 66, militant co-founder of the radical nationalist Republic of New Afrika and Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi who said, “I feel kind of comfortable being militant. Fannie Lou Hamer was a militant. Medgar Evers was a militant. Martin Luther King was a militant. In pursuit of good interests, there is nothing wrong with it.”
Sam Greenlee, 83, Chicago activist and author of The Spook Who Sat by the Door.
Amiri Baraka, 79, fierce and generative poet, freedom fighter, leader of The Black Arts Movement, Poet Laureate of New Jersey, reviled for his post-9/11 poem “Somebody Blew Up America?”
General Baker, 72, labor activist, anti-racist fighter and founder of DRUM (the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) at Dodge Main in Detroit, who devoted his life to working people and in 1965 refused induction into the US Army.
Ruby Dee, 91, actor, artist, author, and activist, who with her husband Ossie Davis fought for decades for peace and justice and joy—friend and champion of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Grace Lee Boggs.
Maya Angelou, 86, legendary poet and activist, author of “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.