In Memoriam: Paul Carter Harrison
Theophus ‘Thee’ Smith is a Professor Emeritus in the Emory University Department of Religion. He is the author of Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (Oxford, 1994), and co-editor with Mark Wallace (Swarthmore) of Curing Violence: Essays on René Girard, (Polebridge, 1994).
“To get somewhere with the matter at hand is to intensify the suspicion, both your own and that of others, that you are not quite getting it right.”
— Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 1973), VIII, p. 29
Among our many sad losses this past year, December 2021 brought news of the unexpected death of Paul Carter Harrison (1936-2021). The New York Times retrospective that followed acknowledged Paul’s contributions as a ‘playwright and scholar who provided a theoretical structure for Black performing arts’ (Clay Risen; January 15, 2022). Indeed, a hallmark of his stellar career was the compelling way he combined theory with practice in African American theater and performance arts.
Paul Carter Harrison began forging that combination with his graduate studies in psychology and phenomenology that he completed at New York’s New School for Social Research in 1962. Throughout his ensuing productions and scholarship he modeled for colleagues and students alike an ethnographic attitude in the study of art, religion and culture: to persist in meeting the demands of excellence and rigor despite the ‘intensifying suspicion of not quite getting it right’ (Geertz).
Moreover Paul enlisted others to join him in the principal project for which he became a kind of avatar: clarifying and re-enacting what is African, Afrocentric or Africana in Black arts and aesthetic expressions. For the sake of that project he made himself winsome as both a practitioner and a scholar. His related publications in theatre arts and performance include research in ritual and spirituality, with titles like The Drama of Nommo (1973), Kuntu Drama: Plays of the African Continuum (1974), Totem Voices: Plays from the Black World Repertory (1989), and Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora (2002).
In 2014 Paul began a collaboration with Emory University that coincided with his burgeoning interests beyond theatre and performance arts. That summer he directed an institute for college and university teachers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The institute’s title reflected the heart of his lifelong project: Black Aesthetics and African Centered Cultural Expressions: Sacred Systems in the Nexus between Cultural Studies, Religion and Philosophy. Joining Paul in leading that institute was the former Rose Library curator for African American collections, Pellom McDaniels III (1968-2020). Other institute teaching faculty and administrative staff included R. Candy Tate, assist. director of the Emory College Center for Creativity and the Arts, Michael D. Harris, Emory emeritus professor of Art History and African American Studies, Dwight Andrews, Emory Music Department professor, Mark Sanders, former Emory English and African American Studies professor, Emory Religion Department professors Dianne Stewart and Theophus ‘Thee’ Smith, and Spelman College professor of Art and Art History, Arturo Lindsay.
Following that now legendary institute, Paul engaged Pellom to join him as co-editor of a related book for which Paul served as the principal editor alongside co-editor Michael D. Harris. Forthcoming soon, the book enshrines Paul’s signature interests in its very title, Ashé: Ritual Poetics in African Diasporic Expressivity (Routledge). So prolific were the materials assembled for that book that a second volume is already planned with Theophus ‘Thee’ Smith joining Michael Harris as co-editor.
As a kind of apologia for the field’s ongoing and anticipated extension of works, we do well to recall its ethnographic nature from a kindred author.
Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is. It is a strange science whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based . . . [and] to borrow W. B. Gallie’s by now famous phrase, “essentially contestable” . . . [it is] a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. (Geertz, Interpretation of Culture, ibid.)
Tributes to Paul Carter Harrison by former students and later colleagues attest to his compelling influence and lasting legacy. He was “one of those rare people whom I never wanted to disappoint. He gave assignments that he knew would shape me and my work a decade later, and was willing to wait for what he knew would be great” (Maria E. Hamilton Abegunde, Asst. Professor, African American and African Diaspora Studies).
Another tribute depicts Paul’s influence as “priestly,” like those whose work “takes them deep into the mysteries of life,” and the power of whose work “my ancestors knew would take me into places for which I needed love, clarity, ethics, and language.” Moreover: “He reminded me of what I instinctively loved about Black expressivity but could not, at one point, label. He helped sharpen my eye so I could distinguish the beauty from the bunk.” Then the writer concludes, “He was the teaching elder I needed at a pivotal point in my career, one who practiced what he professed and modeled for me how to do the same” (Omiyemi Artisia Green).
Yet another source offers a set of characteristics that distinguished Paul among African American professionals of his generation. “He was ‘proper’ talking, as southerners might say, eloquence and eccentricity rolled into a slightly aristocratic, throw-back Black intellectual package of a man that only Paul could pull off.” Then this writer adds another generational perspective: “[With] his broad artistic intellect and unique persona, Paul seemed to embody the Africana aesthetic of my parents’ generation, the foundational aesthetic on which contemporary Black arts rest.”
Describing Paul Carter Harrison as a lecturer, this writer offers an interesting snapshot:
My final encounter with Paul [featured his] attempt to simplify his scholarly keynote address delivered to theater directors, dramaturgs, and scholars at a national conference on Black theater in Washington DC. His address was filled with . . . sentences so saturated with connections between August Wilson plays, Black theater, African spirituality, and African American music and musicians, dance and visual arts, that you could not help but be amazed by his genius . . .
Then, by way of contrast, the writer concludes:
Although Paul Carter Harrison seemed to be a walking encyclopedia of Black theater and art, he was a kind spirit of a man. He always tried to explore the deeper meanings of humanity and creativity in this world we call Black art, and he inspired others to do the same. (Nathan)
Beyond his books mentioned above, other commentators typically recall Paul’s Obie Award winning play “The Great MacDaddy” (1974) and his Blues Operetta, “Anchorman” (2002). One such source highlights how determined the playwright was in “The Great MacDaddy” to display “the African and African American linkage . . . with tropes on African folklore and tales [and] with a nod to classical Greek legends.”
An enviable resource for autobiographical details can be found in a 2004 series of interviews that is archived at HistoryMakers.org. There Paul shared the details of his life journey that began with his birth on March 1, 1936 in New York city, and that included highlights such as his parents’ involvement in the Garvey movement, the AME Church, and the Gullah tradition. As a teenager he discovered art and politics in Greenwich Village, “spending time with Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans, Billy Dee Williams and a coterie of jazz musicians. After a stint at New York University, he transferred to Indiana University in 1953 where he continued his association with artists and musicians such as David Baker and Freddie Hubbard.” (Herb Boyd, New York Amsterdam News, January 20, 2022)
After returning to New York, and following his master’s degree at the New School for Social Research, Paul moved to Spain and then the Netherlands. There he joined a group of fellow artists and writers that included the actress whom he married, Ria Vroemen. He is survived by their daughter, Fonteyn Harrison, grandson Nigel Plattel, and wife Wanda Malone. Happily residing in Panama in recent years he was back in Atlanta for these past months, writing and editing while enjoying the care and company of family.
Family remembrances also conclude Paul’s HistoryMakers.org interviews, alongside such compelling topics as his hopes and concerns for African American communities, reflections on his life and legacy, how he wanted to be remembered, and narrative accompaniments to his photograph collections. Another trove of archival materials is available in the collection of Paul Carter Harrison Papers, 1939-2016, archived at Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library and accessible for research.