One of the great pillars of African-American arts and culture, Richard A. Long, who died January 3 at the age of 85, leaves a brilliant and kaleidoscopic legacy as an eminent cultural historian, pioneering scholar, revered educator, avid art collector and popular raconteur.
The Philadelphia native, already a longtime professor, arrived in Atlanta in 1968 to teach English at Atlanta University, where he founded the department of African-American studies. He joined the faculty of Emory University in 1987 as Atticus Haygood Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.
Over the course of his academic career, Long encouraged countless young scholars and artists. “He was simultaneously an inspiring teacher, a brilliant scholar and a terrifying face across the seminar table,” Emory alum Derek Williams wrote on the Atlanta Daily World website. “He did not suffer fools, but he was a heck of a presence in my life.”
Long’s broad interests embodied ILA principles. Though trained as a medievalist, his expertise and 75-page bibliography encompassed African-American studies, art history, comparative literature, dance, linguistics, English, foreign languages, music and philology. Known to reference, say, Chaucer, Javanese dance and a Billy Strayhorn lyric in a single conversation, he was, said his friend Maya Angelou, that rarity, “the polymath who knows a great deal about everything.”
His travel schedule matched his wide-ranging curiosity. A love of Haitian paintings made that island nation a frequent destination. He might attend a dance performance in Bali, deliver a lecture in Bahia or head off to Hawaii solely to see Doris Duke’s collection of Islamic art at Shangri-La, her Honolulu estate. But he always made an annual trip to Paris, his favorite city, where, he boasted, he would visit museums no one else had ever heard of.
But Long’s contributions were hardly limited to academe. He was, as characterized in a history of Emory University, a public intellectual. He founded festivals and symposia to foster dialogue and served on so many boards (including the National Black Arts Festival and High Museum of Art) that a list might rival his bibliography.
Though slight of build, Long spoke and bore himself with an aristocratic mien, which together with his professional stature could be intimidating. But then a conspiratorial smile would light up his face, his piercing blue eyes would soften, and he would launch into a bit of gossip or a story about one of his many friends.
“He knew everyone and everything,” says photographer Susan Ross, whose parents were AU professors with Long.
She remembers Long bringing notables such as “Jimmy” Baldwin, whom he had met in France during his 1957 Fulbright, to her family’s Thanksgiving dinners. His Inman Park Victorian home, filled with paintings, African sculptures, Gullah baskets and books by the hundreds, was an ongoing salon, in which he connected Atlantans with the larger art world and vice versa.
Ross described such an evening, in 1981, when he threw a party for Nannette and Romare Bearden that drew a who’s who of black Atlanta: former Mayor Andrew Young, news anchor Monica Pearson, soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, professor Millicent Dobbs Jordan, collector O.T. Hammonds (who gave the city the Hammonds House).
In a Venn diagram of 20th-century African-American culturati, from Harlem Renaissance leader Alain Locke to choreographer Bill T. Jones, Long would be in the center. And he would speak as if you were right there with him. His colleague Dana White once recalled Long’s walking into his office to report, “Well, Maya’s 70th birthday can’t be in Africa. Oprah said it’s too hard to get champagne.” It was easy, in such a moment, to imagine that you were.
Given his zest for life, it’s not surprising that Long, says Ross, hated funerals. There will, however, be a memorial service for him at a later date.
Long served on the editorial boards of several publications, including the Langston Hughes Bulletin, Phylon and the Zora Neale Hurston Bulletin. He was president of the College Language Association and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics, commissioner for the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of African Art, and a board member of the High Museum of Art and the Society of Dance History Scholars. He founded the Triennial Symposium on African Art, Atlanta University’s Annual Conference at the Center for African and African-American Studies, and the New World Festivals of the African Diaspora. He was a U.S. committee member at the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, from 1971 to 1977, and consulted for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Long’s books include Black Americana (1985), The Black Tradition in American Dance (1989), African Americans: A Portrait (1993), Grown Deep: Essays on the Harlem Renaissance (1998) and One More Time: Harlem Renaissance History and Historicism (2007). He also edited the books Negritude: Essays and Studies, Afro-American Writing: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry and Black Writers and the American Civil War.