Like many of the characters in his new history of black protest, "There Is a River," Vincent Harding has gambled, and forced new directions, by raising questions that are uncomfortable at times to blacks and whites. Not surprisingly for a man respected both as a historian and mystic, Harding offers a story about a dream he had four years ago when he was struggling with the question of his nonconformity, a dream that vindicated his different course.

"I was supposed to make a speech someplace, or present some paper, and it was clearly a learned academic society, and for some silly reason I had assumed that in order to make this presentation, I could come dressed like I usually do and things would be fine," says Harding, his brown and gray cords, cardigan and turtleneck testimony to his preferences.

In his dream his audience was dressed to the scholarly nines, and Harding was frozen with agony until three black scholars he admires, Jay Saunders Redding, John Hope Franklin and W.E.B. DuBois, appeared. "They came with a sense of saying, 'You should have known better but don't worry about it, we are going to take care of you.' They provided me with a jacket and a tie, whatever it was I needed to pass muster, and I felt cared for. Everything was going to be all right. That was one of the fundamental moments for me."

In most of his endeavors, Harding, one of the key intellectual guides through the 1960s black struggle for equality and identity, has been willing to risk a distinct voice, working, says a friend, "in his own stream."

In the mid-1960s when the Vietnam War issue was ignored by black leaders, Harding was one of the first to write a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. urging him to debate the issue publicly. When black students on white campuses in the late 1960s were demanding black faculty, dorms and curricula, Harding rebuked them with a call to return to black campuses and build enclaves of black strength. When William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner" made literary news in 1967, Harding joined a chorus of black intellectuals in tearing apart the book. Harding felt Styron ignored the work of black historians by taking credit for resurrecting a black hero. In his influential 1970 essay, "Beyond Chaos," Harding urged the black studies movement to challenge the assumptions and structure of histories from the white perspective, by weaving black contributions into every aspect. "I thought that would create a history that was more faithfully human," says Harding.

Now his book "There Is a River," the first of three planned volumes on black protest and radicalism, again places Harding outside of the mainstream of both his black and white colleagues.

His tenet is that "a river," an unbroken movement of physical and psychological rebellion, thrives in the black community. In his hands, the years up to 1865 are not a history of slavery, not a retelling of black reaction to white inhumanity, but a moving story of black initiative in the quest for freedom. Not only is its intellectual framework distinct, but it has a daring emotional and humanistic voice.

The Long Struggle

"The larger story is the black struggle for new understanding of freedom, of justice, of integrity, of rightness in the American society. It is a struggle to recreate the nature of America itself," says Harding. Though that process is far from complete, Harding gleans some optimism from some changes he has witnessed. "One of the most important things that took place out of the mass movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a far greater confidence in the citizenry as a whole that they could bring about change. It touched certain veins of possibility," says Harding. "The influence continues . . . in the protest over nuclear weapons, 200,000 people strong in Europe, singing, 'We Shall Overcome.' "

Harding's dream helped free him from other people's definitions. "That's another bondage," he says. "One of the things they say you don't do in history is talk about we and us. When you write about black folks, you have to make believe you are someone green. And you don't enter into the motive situation and you don't risk a certain kind of status in the academic community by being foolish about expressing your own bias and commitments," says Harding.

Though his full-bearded, hefty appearance is studied casualness, Harding's personal immersion in critical ideas is not. When discussing his new book, he talks carefully as though he is turning over just-born ideas, instead of spilling out themes that have dominated his last 20 years. Among followers of Harding's work, "River" became a legend-in-progress because of its 12-year gestation; Harding passed around the first chapters to friends, and underwent a grueling peer review at seminars.

The work, says Al-Tony Gilmore, a historian at the University of Maryland, is a fine academic study and social sermon, but its pages are also a statement. "He is writing for a cause. He has a theoretical framework and he is unbridled by traditional restraints. Great books always have a spiritual and ideological base, and Harding's work raises provocative questions like Frederick Jackson Turner's essay on the frontier, like Charles Beard's 'Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.' " Other historians and reviewers feel his metaphor of the river is too strong, because, though the pattern of protest from Harriet Tubman to Andrew Young has been continuous, the slow progress of blacks in America outweighs the validity of his lyrical metaphor of unity and strength.

But there is a substantial river in Harding's own life. Now 50, he was born in New York City and started his academic journeys at City College of New York. The first of his three advanced degrees is in journalism, from Columbia University. Right afterward, Harding, a Seventh Day Adventist, was drafted into the Army, a pivotal experience that led to his adopting the Mennonite faith for a decade. "My religious convictions didn't conform to the American ideas of who was the enemy. In the course of working that out I found that my view was closest to the radical protestants of the 16th century, some of whom became the pacifist Mennonites. I was active with them until 1967 or 1968," says Harding.

Out of the Limelight

During the 1960s civil rights movement, Harding, who taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, and his wife, Rosemarie, organized, taught and comforted younger workers. Courtland Cox, now on Mayor Marion Barry's staff, recalls, "In that kind of intense atmosphere, the day-to-day details can be overwhelming, you tended to develop tunnel vision and get burned out. After discussions with Harding, you didn't feel isolated, you could step into history and if you didn't finish you didn't feel you were lost." Harding remembers receiving as much as he gave.

At the end of the 1970s in his book, "The Other American Revolution," he urged some hard rethinking: "How do we take all that we have learned and move it into the deeper internal spaces of our beings which this decade of winter has allowed us to explore? How, from so spacious and solid a center, do we then move forward, beyond our best leaders of the past, beyond our best declarations, beyond our best actions, beyond our best dreams, to participate fully in the creation of a fundamentally new reality."

Now Harding, who has taught at Temple, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania, is at the University of Denver, teaching theology, an outgrowth of his involvement in the peace-related movements; he was an observer at the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. Harding, says a friend, chose Denver a year ago to stay out of the limelight "so he wouldn't perpetuate his image as a godfather" to younger scholars and civil rights fight veterans. But another friend says Harding has never grasped that part of his role. "He's an enigma in that way. His ego tends to be philosophical, reflective and poetic, rather than a vertical I-me," says James Early, a former associate now at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"The River" has its own collective history. Some of the ideas developed out of the book Harding worked on for the old WMAL-TV here, which solicited a black history series as a response to community criticism of its programming. It was at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat, and at an Institute of the Black World research symposium that much of the intellectual underpinnings of "River" came into focus.

Howard Dodson, the director of the Institute, who is now on leave working at the Humanities endowment, recalls one of those sessions, "So much of our history has been written as black as victims, or what has the white man done to us, or the me-tooism, what have blacks done in the mainstream. Vincent was at the point of raising questions that went beyond those theses 10 years ago. He had the sense of purpose and was asked to put his individuality, his center, in a broader framework."

In his history, Harding has reexamined the work of the well-known black philosophers, such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Harding says he adopted from 19th-century political organizer David Walker his connection between racism and economics. "One of the reasons I am moved by Walker is that while we black people can get off fairly and justifiably scot-free . . . from the charge of racism, we can't make believe that we can get off from the charge of avarice and greed that can lead to the exploitation of others . . . he essentially says if you want your society to survive then both black and white will have to change. I feel very close to that way of thinking."

Much of the book deals with the bravery of the 19th-century runaways, fugitive slaves and black soldiers. "Breaking with slavery meant two critical steps. One was that they had to redefine themselves internally, that they had to be sure that they knew they were not meant to be slaves, that that was not their fundamental nature, nor was their slavery built into the fundamental nature of society," says Harding. The second aspect was the decision to leave, says Harding, to "risk the unknown, the insecurity of the wilderness, rather than hold on to the corrupt security of slavery." The decisions of the runaways have lessons for modern society, Harding contends, citing people who are in bondage to their economic security and other people's expectations of them.

Where is this black stream of protest going? He believes that the black movement has to include worldwide concerns, such as nuclear war, to continue but shouldn't forsake its past. "There is no way in my mind that we can struggle for a bigger piece of the pie, if that pie is made up of the exploitation of the rest of the world. That is totally unfaithful to our own best history," says Harding.