While there is no dismissing the glorious encomiums for the late Dr. Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan—and they were as full of praise as the many dispensers—the priceless item at his more than three-hour funeral service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem was the printed program. One thing was certain upon being lucky enough to get one was the prediction that they would not have a sufficient supply for the massive turnout.
An even safer prediction was that many of the hundreds of admirers of the great scholar would not be able to get in the church in the first place, and like the overflow crowd at the wake and viewing on Thursday, many had to settle for the celebration outside the church at the end of the services.
Professor James Small had the awesome responsibility of moderating the “service of commemoration and the Initiation into the Duat,” as the ceremony was called. Looking at the long list of speakers, performers and proclamations he advised the participants that “you have two minutes for your remarks,” he said, “and only Dr. Jeffries can have an extended African two minutes.” It brought the expected laughter from a packed church, especially from those familiar with Dr. Leonard Jeffries’ long, history-laden speeches. And later he and his wife, Dr. Rosalind Jeffries, would speak in tandem, both stressing an “African identity” and keeping to the limits.
“Dr. Ben is not gone, he’s right here,” said veteran activist and cultural maven Camille Yarbrough during her delivery of the libations. She asked the audience to “just breathe” deeply and reflect on Dr. Ben’s spirit.
After the collective breath was exhaled, Minister Akbar Muhammad was called to the podium and, for the most part, he read a message from Minister Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. It was a message of unity and solidarity with understanding that Dr. Ben was a historian “from whose lessons we can learn from the past.”
Listening to someone read from the Book of Vindication must have been a first time experience for most of those in attendance. And it was during this reading that “Mut the mother of heaven” was mentioned and “heaven” would be almost a running gag for the rest of the ceremony, particularly where it was variously located by different speakers.
Professor Small, a leopard skin print draped over his shoulders, kept things moving at a good clip, and often dropping his own observations of his mentor. “Dr. Ben gave us the foundation to understand our eternity,” he remarked before asking Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, III to read the obituary. Among the highlights of Dr. Ben’s enormously productive 96 years—he joined the ancestor on March 19—Butts recalled was that he was a versatile genius who wrote more than 40 books. “He will be remembered as a brilliant historian, committed to the uplift and enlightenment of the global African community. He will also be remembered as charismatic with an enormous sense of humor. And at the same time, as being straight, forthright, and even confrontational if he detected lies, deceit, or falsehoods.”