Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Family

BOND: Now, this is a natural segue. When you look back over your life, who are the people who've been most influential, who've had the biggest impact on it? I'd imagine it began with your family.

NORTON: Oh, truly, it began with my parents and my grandmother, with the people closest --

BOND: And your aunt.

NORTON: -- to me. Aunt Selena. What that illustrates to me is how important it is for children to be surrounded by family of some kind. It doesn't need to be my extended family. I was very fortunate, but when I see what has happened to children today, the importance of family to the survival of black people over the centuries and decades becomes more -- becomes clearer to me than ever. When you consider that African Americans had nothing but their family and their church -- the government not only didn't care about them but was working against them -- and you see what's happened to so many black children today, then you have special appreciation for your own family.

I was the oldest and -- I was not the first grandchild. Selena's son was the first grandchild, but he was much older than I was, so for all intents and purposes, I was the first grandchild and treated as such because it was a -- these were old-fashioned black folks that the first child had more responsibility and perhaps had greater attention paid to her because -- you know, all I can say is I didn't have long for that because Portia came along thirteen months later, and Nellie, my third sister, I am not three years older. It seems like my parents said -- we joked, or my grandmother joked with my father, that she knew what that was all about, these three children coming one after another. It was the attempt to get a boy and they all failed and he gave up.

BOND: What did your parents and this extended family instruct you in, and I don't mean in the formal sense, "Now, you better do this, you better do that." What was the ethos in the family?

NORTON: Yeah, I think, since everybody really, frankly even today, gets nurtured in the same core values. People who go out and rob and steal get nurtured in the same core values. I think that if I look at myself and try to say, "What is that they instilled in you besides the normal? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I mean, what does that mean if you have three sisters and you're sharing, or wanting yours and she wants hers and you fight? So I mean, I don't think those things resonate until later in life when you're forming a sense, a larger sense, of who you are. But what did resonate very early in my life was an early sense of leadership that I think came from being the first child. Now, I must say that I don't think my father or mother were responsible for this so much as my grandmother and my aunt. Their back door -- or their back yards somehow on one street faced our backyards, so we went back and forth all the time. And this -- psychologists think that first children are imbued with this anyway, this notion of being the first child and the first child strives towards excellence. The first child believes that more is expected of her than the rest and they cite all kinds of statistics that show that. I don't know about that. All I know is that was in fact the case in my case, that I had a head start because my grandmother never said, "You're the first child and this is what you're supposed to do," but there are devices I absolutely remember that now seems to me were to imbue me with a sense that I had a special responsibility.

BOND: What kind of devices?

NORTON: Well, the one that I think is most transparent is when she sent me to the store, I think it was for some meat or some chops, and I came back and she said, "Well, Eleanor, how did you -- ?" I mean, I was only about seven years old, sent to the Safeway. She said, "Eleanor, tell me about how you got him to give you these chops." This was when the Safeway had an actual butcher behind the counter. And I said, "Well, he asked me which did I want, and I said, `I don't want that one, I want this one and this one.' " Well, and I brought them home. I remember sitting -- this is one of many instances, but as I say, now that I look back on it, this one is particularly transparent -- in the summer and spring after school I would often sit with my grandmother on the front porch and there were some orange and green chairs, rocking chairs, and we'd rock and everybody goes by, [she] knows everybody, and you pass the news of the day. And the news of the day for days running was, "Let me tell you what this child did today. Well, I sent her to the Safeway and the man -- she'd never been before, this was her first time. And when it came to choosing lamb chops and you know how difficult that is to do," she would say, "This is what the child said -- " Now, here I am sitting there rocking with grandmother, looking at her, listening to her brag on me that way. She didn't say to me, "What a wonderful child you are. Oh, you showed great discrimination in doing that." She told other people about it. And somehow that said to me, "Well, my goodness, that's a standard." I think it said to me that is a standard I must try to meet more often.

BOND: So the lamb chops lesson is in effect a lecture given to others that you hear --

NORTON: Just news given to others.

BOND: It was a reflection of how you ought to behave and what you ought to do in the future and how you ought to comport yourself.

NORTON: Yes, as opposed to a didactic notion of either this is how you do it or this is wonderful that you have done. She asked me what had happened. I told her what had happened. She then told everybody on the block what had happened. And I think, like grandmothers are said to have, she had a certain kind of wisdom that parents often don't bring when they're trying to tell children what to do because they're responsible for discipline. My grandmother wasn't so much -- I don't remember being disciplined by her.