“Everything he touched he made better'.” --Historian Lonnie Bunch.
The celebration held at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, NJ, on November 14, 2014, honored the city itself as much as it did the life of historian Clement Alexander Price, who passed on November 5.
Political leaders such as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (D–N.J.) expressed similar observations about the great educator following his death. So did members of the community at Rutgers University where he taught, fellow associates on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, administrators at the Smithsonian Institute, and those at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
A Prodigiously Productive Life
Dr. Price’s exhaustive list of accomplishments includes co-founding (with the late Giles R. Wright) the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series in 1981, taking on the directorship of the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, chairing the New Jersey State Council on the Arts from 1980 to 1983, and authoring some four books on different aspects of American and African-culture, including Freedom Not Far Distant: A Documentary History of Afro-Americans in New Jersey (1980). Despite his own demanding schedule and prodigious output, as various speakers at his funeral service attested, Price somehow made time to accommodate requests from those who needed some fragment of his genius to lend weightier substance and dignity to their specific projects. Along those lines, he contributed a foreword to Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File), and an essay to the book Small Towns, Black Lives: African American Communities in Southern New Jersey (Noyes Museum of Art), both published in 2003. On behalf of the citizens of his beloved Newark, he accepted the title of City Historian near the beginning of 2014. In an official entry into the U.S. Senate record, Sen. Booker noted Price’s capacity for giving to others as well as his dedication to Newark:
“…He served not only as our leading historian, but as a powerful spiritual force in our state’s largest city. He was invested in Newark, and – ever generous with his time - was known to arrange tours for visitors that highlighted not only the city’s rich history, but its considerable promise. Clem always recognized the vital truth that charting a brighter course for the future requires a comprehensive understanding of the past.”
Among the most compelling commentators at the service for Price was Mayor Ras Baraka, whose impassioned poetic delivery evoked memories of his poet-playwright father, the late Amiri Baraka. Mayor Baraka credited Price with helping to shape his political and social vision of Newark:
“…Newark is one of America’s oldest metropolises that wears the scars of Western democracy all over her face, tragically beautiful, complex and proud. If you stop on our streets for a second and listen, you can hear Clem’s voice, beckoning us, forcing us all to deal with each other.”
Moreover, in his official statement as mayor following the announcement of Price’s death, Baraka announced the following:
“…Our celebrations of Newark’s 350th Anniversary in 2016 will be a tribute to his love of Newark and his vision of its greatness as our nation’s third-oldest city. He defined the transformation we are making to turn Newark into a City we can all believe in.”
The acknowledgements of Clement Price’s highly-prized singular genius for intellectual scholarship and down-to-earth compassion were so deeply compelling––drawing tears and laughter alike––that one is left wondering why more of the world did not share in more of him. Possibly that would have spoiled the unique pure-gold rarity of his academic and spiritual gifts. Possibly it would have removed him too far from the reach of those whom Pastor Moses William Howard referred to as the “little Clement Prices” that God will send and “who will usher us into this city’s great future.”
Words Sung, Spoken, and Written
The song “There is a Balm in Gilead” sung in his honor by the powerful baritone Kevin Maynor, and Norman Lewis’ brilliant rendition of “Oh What a Beautiful City” were perfectly executed double salutes that could have referred as easily to the historian’s release from the physical world as they could have to the vision of Newark’s rebirth viewed by many as the centerpiece of his legacy.
Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s description of Price as “a speaker of grace and a narrator of hope,” historian Lonnie Bunch quoting his mother’s declaration of him as “the patron saint of Newark,” student Andrea Barton Reeves acknowledgement of her “beloved teacher… a man of immeasurable integrity,” Price’s cousin Randall Kennedy’s description of him as “a cultivator of grace,” and the words of numerous others combined to produce something rarely seen publicly in America in the year 2014.
Their spoken and written words offered as tribute to Dr. Price produced a portrait of a black man who had been unreservedly cherished for the contents of his character and the balanced weight of his once-living presence on Earth. The contrast was a brutally stark one compared to the images and implications that followed the deaths of so many black men in America in 2014. Whereas the tears shed for numerous others this year have been from inconsolable aggravated grief and political outrage, those wept for Clement Alexander Price were clearly tears of joy and gratitude.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.