June 04 2020

Dr. Charles H. Long – Teacher, Mentor, Friend

Lee H. Butler, Jr., PhD, Distinguished Service Professor of Theology and Psychology, Chicago Theological Seminary

Lee H. Butler, Jr. and Charles H. Long together

Photo courtesy of Lee H. Butler, Jr.

Dr. Charles Houston Long was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the time of legislated segregation. While his formative years were lived during a time of deep racial tensions, his personhood was nurtured within a crucible of Black intellectual excellence. He attended the premier Black school in Arkansas’ segregated public school system, Little Rock Dunbar Junior and Senior High School and Junior College. When the Dunbar school was being established, Black community leaders were committed to an institutional structure that would prepare students for college alongside a curriculum to provide students with labor-force skills. Recognized for its outstanding faculty and rigorous curriculum, Dunbar was the first Black school in Arkansas to be accredited by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges in 1931. Because education was regarded as one of the pathways to full citizenship, Dunbar Junior College placed emphasis upon educating people to become teachers. It is not coincidental, therefore, that Charles Long became a great scholar-teacher and a fierce advocate for intellectual rigor. He always looked for the sweat in a scholar’s work.

Before I ever met Dr. Long, I was acquainted with the lore of the great debates between he and Dr. James H. Cone. In the mid-1980s, every seminarian who was introduced to the writings of James Cone also learned the names of J. Deotis Roberts and Charles Long. These three were spoken of as a dialogical trinity of Black theological discourse. While the debates between Long and Cone were fierce, the love they shared for one another was equally fierce! This was immediately evident when I was in the presence of these two giants for the first time. It was 1997, in Dayton, Ohio, at my first annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (SSBR). While standing among a group of senior scholars that included Dr. Cone, Dr. Long joined the group with a gleeful greeting that “signified” on Dr. Cone: “Jim Cone and one of his Coneheads!” Significations was not only his mode for interpreting religion, it was his mode for interrogating another’s thoughts.

More than a decade after that first encounter, it was my very great privilege to be able to identify Dr. Long as my mentor, especially since I am not a historian of religions. I was already a full professor at the time I began to be mentored by Dr. Long. Expressing my need to develop new critical competencies as a scholar, Dr. Tracey Hucks introduced me to Dr. Long, and he began to teach me historiography as a method. That he chose to accept me as a member of his inner circle of students and mentees is an honor for which I will be forever grateful.

As often as I could, I made it my business to be present to hear him lecture across the country. My showing up here, there, and everywhere made me something of a “groupie,” although we Long Groupies just called it being family. There were, however, guidelines for being in Dr. Long’s inner circle. I recall an AAR session in which he was a panelist. As AAR sessions go, one sometimes experiences overlapping commitments. As a result, I attended part of Dr. Long’s session and then ducked out to be present for another. When I saw Dr. Long the next morning, he informed me that he saw me at the session but also noticed that I did not stay. He then proceeded to tell me, “Don’t do that again.” I was to stay for his sessions in their entirety. All I could say was, “Yes sir.” And, of course, I never slipped out on one of his sessions again!

On more than one occasion, I organized events for Dr. Long to give a lecture. This means I was also responsible for introducing him as the speaker of the hour. The last occasion I was privileged to present him to a listening audience, I introduced him as a national treasure, a living legend, and a wonder of the world! He was a national treasure because he volunteered for the United States Army Air Forces and fought from the air against supremacist Nazi aggression during World War II. He was a living legend who, after the war, with strength of character, determination of will, critical intellect, and a commitment to academic excellence, earned two academic degrees from the University of Chicago (UofC). In his own words, he “blundered into the University of Chicago in 1949.” With two years of study at a segregated junior college, he tested out of the UofC undergraduate curriculum and immediately entered the UofC Divinity School where he earned the BD ‘53 and PhD ‘62. Furthermore, it was at UofC Divinity School that he received his first faculty appointment and became one of the pillars in the construction of Religionswissenschaft (History of Religions). Finally, he was a wonder of the world because at 91 years of age, he was still a productive, publishing scholar, evidenced by his last publication, Ellipsis . . . The Collected Writings of Charles H. Long. Even at the moment when his eyes closed for the last time, Dr. Long had lectures scheduled at the age of 93! He was a Genius, Treasure, Legend, and Wonder of the World whose full story cannot be told by a single voice.

Dr. Long engaged his career as a scholar in a similar fashion to the way he engaged the enemy during World War II. He was tenacious and fearless! He entered the academy during a time when there were only a handful of African Americans engaging in religious studies. As a historian of religions, he never ceased from having an aerial view of interpretation and attack. With a passion for intellectual rigor and a desire for collegial exchange, he lived for spaces where he could push thought beyond the encampments that inhibit free thinking and limit conversations as determined by a restrictive gaze of white normativity. He desired critical and precise dialogues that explored issues of deep existential meaning and phenomenological significance from a variety of fields and disciplinary approaches.

When I assign my students to read Significations, I tell them I am introducing them to Dr. Long’s thoughts. I never say I am teaching the mind of Dr. Long. Given this posture, it was not unusual for me to call him on the telephone both before and after a class conversation on his writings to ask for clarifications on his thoughts in order to more accurately communicate his ideas. He was a true genius and the consummate Teacher. In fact, Dr. Davíd Carrasco always addressed him as “Teacher.” It was my privilege to sit with him for hours on end and to learn from his insights.

During his 90th year of life and what was supposed to be Dr. Long’s last AAR, Dr. Jacob Olupona had stoles embroidered with “Charles Long at 90. Teacher-Mentor-Friend” that a number of us wore during that meeting. As it turned out, his last annual AAR meeting was San Diego at age 93. On February 12, 2020, having received notification of his passing, I wore my stole through my workday at Chicago Theological Seminary in honor of his life and our relationship. This gave me the opportunity to describe his legacy to others the entire day.

In his final days of life, I was able to express my gratitude to him at his hospice bedside. He never liked the idea of people identifying themselves as Longian. He preferred to say that he taught people how to ask the right questions. I assured him that his time with me was not wasted. I will deeply miss our conversations and what seemed to be his ever evolving intellect.

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