Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Parents

BOND: Let me take you back to your very, very early years. Who are the people, I guess mother, father -- but -- mother, father and others -- Who are the people who developed, nurtured, trained, pushed, slapped, whatever -- ?

BARAKA: Definitely.

BOND: -- pulled you along -- who are these early influences as a child?

BARAKA: Well, my family obviously.

BOND: Right.

BARAKA: I mean, obviously. My mother and, I guess, grandfather stand out mostly. My mother made me do [inaudible] -- She sent me and my sister all kinds of lessons. I've had every kind of lesson that you can imagine. I mean, from piano, you know, drum and art, drawing, all those kind of things, which is very interesting because it meant what? It meant that somebody was determined that you were going to know something. You know, the whole recitation of the Gettysburg Address and all that, the singing of "Ave Maria." It meant that you were gonna know something, that "You were not going to get away from me, darling, without knowing something."

And my sister, [was] like that too. My sister took ballet lessons, tap dance lessons. My sister was the only black girl in Newark at the time you'd see ice skating. Nobody else could ice skate. She would be down in the middle of the town ice skating. My mother and I'd be standing there watching her. But -- and my sister ended up as a dancer on Broadway. You know, you can see her in Cleopatra: Elizabeth Taylor's in the foreground, my sister's in the back playing, you know, one of the African girls. But that is the result of my mother in the main insisting -- you know, insisting on that. And what's amazing to me is the question about the arts, that she was emphasizing the arts for us. You know, we were going to be artists one way or another. You know. And, of course, when you finally pulled the gun out of the holster, as you say, when you finally do realize, "Yes, that's right. I've been trained in this" -- I mean, this is not just a casual idea of mine.

BOND: But it also means that the Newark community had people who could teach you -- your sister how to tap dance, you how to play the trumpet, you how to play the drum?

BARAKA: Well, they were in a circle. My parents were in a circle of young people essentially, young, black folks who were socially, you know, focused. You know, they loved to party, they loved to have -- I remember -- I think that's how I learned to drink beer so much. After their parties, I would sneak out and drain the glasses. But they loved to have these parties, but they were invariably parties that were either benefits for one cause -- black scholarships, you know -- they belonged to that little group, the National Association -- well, of course, the NAACP, but the National Association of Postal Employees. For instance, my father was deep in that. They knew people like Effa Manley, the woman that owned the Newark Eagles, our baseball team, you know. They were -- then their friends -- like my sister's ballet teacher was my mother's friend. She taught her ballet and tap. The piano [teacher's] were my mother and father's friends. Although, I had to go out for drum, I had to go out for the art school. But still, they had a circle of friends that were educated and had the same kind of, I guess you'd say kind of optimistic view of what was possible in the future.

BOND: So, in a way, without intending to do so, aren't they also preparing you for a public life, to make you self-assured in the public?


BOND: Those recitations and other things?

BARAKA: Well, she -- that's because she had a public life, more than -- My mother was, you know, one of these young, black women who had been, of course, to college -- had not graduated, but went back to graduate after her family, but who herself was used to, you know, the Junior Leaguers, the -- you know, the various kinds of organizations that you -- she was used to speaking or making public appearances, of being in charge of organizations. My father was much less out front, but even he was, you know, a member of certain of these organizations, including a bowling organization, of which he was the president, called The Nemderolocs. And The Nemderoloc of course is colored men spelled backwards. So, I mean, they all had a -- they had a public, you know, persona. My grandfather was the -- you know, the founder of one of the largest churches in Newark. So that was -- I was used to seeing my own people, you know, in public kinds of situations. So I thought it was normal.

BARAKA: When I was in elementary school there was the principal who, for some reason, thought that I was a either an informer or somebody that he needed to talk to because he would always say, "And, Everett" – you know, my first name Everett – "And, Everett, what do Negroes think about this?" I'm ten. What do I know what Negroes think about anything? But my parents had taken us to Fisk and the Tuskegee we had visited, you see. And apparently that was known that we had gone and our mother was -- you know? Because she, by that time, was just -- oh, because, you know, even though she had come out of college, she had to get a job doing piecework in those factories. My father had, by that time, become a postman, which, I guess, was the best job for black folks --

BOND: It's a wonderful, a wonderful job…

BARAKA: Yeah. I mean, so he was in the post office and she's -- when the war started, she got upgraded. You know how everybody had a little upgrade? Well, so she then got a job as an office worker for the ODB, the Office of Dependency Benefits, sending out those checks. So even though she had been a college person, she had to do work in the sort of, those dress factories prior to the second World War. That's very interesting. So the second World War. Then they moved her up to this office worker and she kept going to school and stuff. And she began to social work. And she was a well-known, well-loved social worker in the various projects, you know, the black projects. She got to be known as a social worker who visited people about their, you know, about their family problems and stuff like that. So I guess that's where I got some of that combination of always being in the crowd, and at the same time some kind of the public aspect of it.

BOND: And some kind of caring about others had to come from your mother, because your mother's caring about others.


BOND: Not just her own family, not just the immediate, but others.