Ho Chi Minh: A fifty year study

Vijay Prasad’s recently published Selected Ho Chi Minh arrived last week. The book opens with the story from 1969 Saigon (then a city in South Vietnam), shortly after Ho Chi Minh’s passing. Someone takes the time to create a humble wooden plaque and places it on the door of an abandoned temple. The plaque reads “Temple of the Venerable One”

People from the locality marched into the temple carrying flowers, incense, and fruit, bowing before the lamps and candles that had been placed on the alter. Thousands of people began to appear at the temple: workers and students, housewives and teachers, soldiers and journalists. Mother Seven, who lived next door, took charge of the temple as its priests.

from Selected Ho Chi Minh, edited by Vijay Prashad

The story reminds me that it was my parent’s purchase of Bernard Fall’s Ho Chi Minh on Revolution in 1968 that first attracted my interest in the independence struggle of Vietnam. I was six at the time. I never got around to discussing Fall’s book with my parents, never talked with them about Ho Chi Minh for that matter. I never had the chance to ask them why they purchased the book to begin with.

What my parents did leave me was a caring about the then-on-going struggle against apartheid in South Africa, an appreciation of the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, the liberation theology of James Cone, an appreciation of the many perspectives that informed Martin Luther King’s view of the world. They thought enough to fill our home with books by those and similar authors, albeit on the salary of a postal clerk and middle school literature teacher. They poured the greatest portion of their time and love into us, into building a home in a Black community which centered and elevated the dignity and nobility of Black people.

This gives me all the context needed to understand why they purchased the book, and it gives me insight into how a Black combat veteran of the Korean conflict was grappling with what he’d experienced nearly two decades before. My mother would talk about an incident she experienced in grad school sometime in the mid 1950s — a Korean grad student in her class savaged by the professor’s unceasing racist taunts. Her stories of how she and fellow students were steady in supporting, encouraging and listening to the student taught me something about solidarity. I recall the selfless hours of support she gave to Vietnamese students whose families had been displaced. How she’d talk about the relationships built with those families. How they still kept in touch decades later.

The story of Mother Seven speaks to me about how we must hold in memory and practice the spirit and wisdom of ancestors. How revolution and bringing freedom into existence is an act of keeping resistance alive down through generations, of living as a good ancestor, of passing down, of actively teaching the foundations needed for liberation. Veneration is both a praxis of keeping the hope of the ancestors alive, as well as lighting candles of guidance to generations that will come after we’ve left this realm of existence.

Our children are young, and they will do the heavy work. We are old, we cannot do heavy work, but leaning on our sticks, we will take the lead to encourage them and impart our experiences to them. We are elders, we must sincerely unite first to set and example for our children.

Letter to Old People, Ho Chi Minh, from Selected Ho Chi Minh, editor Vijay Prashad

My partner reminds me that being an elder means being in community and in communion across time and place. A book curated fifty years ago, a journal entry written seventy five years ago, a photograph from one hundred years ago signals hope and is a love letter to us now, a bridge of grace telling us that someone prayed on us, someone fought for us, someone dreamed of us, someone remembered us then and is guiding us now.

This practice of memory, recollection, hope, and veneration is not a static embodiment of dogma. It is acknowledging that even the mistakes, failings, shortcomings are a gift — that they hold priceless treasures of wisdom. It is a reminder that forgiveness can still be worked through in time. It is knowing that the earnest striving of our ancestors can be reflected on to speak for all they imagined despite the limitations of their earthly existence. It is to realize that we too will need to ask our future selves and spiritual grandchildren forgiveness.

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