Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness

BOND: I want to talk for a minute about race consciousness and how race consciousness affects you. How does it affect you?

FLAKE: Well, it has a great deal of effect. I was talking to the young lady who did the research last night who had read my book, and one of the things she had mentioned was that segment in there where I talked about how when I went home for a summer and the weight and strain of trying to work my way through college had really started to get to me. And being away from home in Ohio where my first encounter with snow and the like, coming from Houston where I'd never seen it before. And so I went home between my sophomore and junior years because I didn't have the money to come right back to campus. And I decided I was going to stay. I was working at Albright Park making $1.75 an hour, and I thought that was a wonderful salary back in 1968. No, was that -- ? 1963. So I said, "Okay. I'm going to just stay home and work."

Two things happened. The first thing was that as I was driving on the parking lot, the car's brakes gave way. The car wound up in the shoe store across the street. And I had this real feeling that God was trying to tell me something, I really have to deal with this. The second thing was a young lady came on the parking lot one day at noon-time. Restaurant's across the street. And as we were parking cars, she came back and said that she had been short-changed. And I told her that the company policy was that at the end of the day when we did the checkout, if there was an over -- if there was money over, then we would send it to you, take you address, phone number and the like, and we would do that. Well, she left the lot and she came back with this white policeman who said, "You ought to have him arrested." I mean, I'm talking about a simple -- clearly an error, if it was -- I did not know at that point that it was an error. And she said, "No, I don't want him arrested. All I want is the difference between what I should have paid and the money that's missing." And the white policeman just kept on telling her, "You ought to have him arrested. You ought to have him arrested." So after a while, she joined in the force with him. "Well, yeah. They arrested my son because he had a parking ticket and they took him in. So, yeah. I want to press charges."

So, on the way to the station, you know, the window was open. I put my hand in the window. The policeman said, "Nigger, get your hand out of that window." And you know, I did that. And I got down to that police station. Fortunately, the company lawyer was there to meet me within a few minutes just as they were about to book me. Well, that very day when I got home, I called the president of Wilberforce University and said, "I don't have any money. I need to come back. I'd like a full-time job." And he said, "Were you working in the cafeteria?" I said, "Yes." He said, "You can have your job back there. And you serve all the -- you can wait the tables for all the dinners and programs that I have at the house. And I said to myself that very day, "The day is coming when I'm going to make more than that white cop. I'm going to do better than he could ever imagine doing in his own life." And that drove me for a long time. For a long time, the image of his face could not be erased from my mind. And every time I found myself getting discouraged or coming to a place where I thought I might want to quit doing something, the image of his face would flash before me. And that's when I realized that I'm going to keep on moving and I'm going to keep on driving. And I've had my other incidents. And every time I've run into racial incidents, for me, it's been an inspiration to just perform better, to do more, to prove that I have the ability to do more than most of the people who would try to reduce me or limit me or neutralize me based on my race.

BOND: To what degree, and it's impossible to say, does the fact that you're an AME have to do with your race consciousness? I think of the AME Church as a race-conscious church, a fighting church.

FLAKE: Oh, yeah, without a doubt. I mean, if you look at my dissertation, and you realize the emphasis I put on the role that Richard Allen played and buying his own freedom out of slavery and then being able to found a denomination where he was thrown out of a white church in Philadelphia, lifted physically, he and the persons who followed him because on a certain Sunday morning they refused to stay in the balcony but came down to the altar. That has been guiding in my life. I mean, I've been in AME all of my life. And I've had the feeling that this church denominationally offered something that I could not get anywhere else. I pastored a Presbyterian church for a while and did not get that same kind of feeling of pride in terms of what this denomination has offered to America and what it offers the world. And so it has indeed played a major part and a major role in helping to shape and define what I am. It has not helped to shape as much in defining the ministry that I have. Because -- in many ways I had to try to create a lot of what is the model we have. And in other ways, look at others who are in the same kind of categories. Because what we have lost in the denomination is that spirit of Richard Allen, of -- the self-help spirit of Richard Allen. And what I'm trying to do is demonstrate that this was a good model two hundred years ago. It's still a good model today. Because although the issues are different, they are not that different. Because we're still trying to solve problems of trying to empower and enhance the capabilities of people to be able to do things for themselves.