Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Cynicism About the Black Church

BARAKA: But I think when I was twelve was when I got baptized. And, you know, when they dunk you in that water, man --

BOND: Total immersion --

BARAKA: Right. Total immersion. And then when I came out from that water, I said, "Wait a minute. Everything is the same." I thought that once I got dumped in the water, I would come out, you know -- maybe I would know Christ or something like that or I would see something. But that was, I guess, part of my own, kind of, cynicism in a way, you know. And then you see things happening --

BOND: But where does that come from if you have this strongly believing great-grandmother, and she's the religious person and a big influence, obviously? Where does that cynicism -- why are you a doubter?

BARAKA: Well, I don't know, I don't know. My grandmother -- no, my great-grandmother was the storyteller. She was in South Carolina. My grandmother lived with us.

BOND: Your grandmother was the believer.

BARAKA: Was the -- yeah, the super-believer. Who was also a head of the Ladies Aid. You know, they had a class struggle in the church between the Ladies Aid and the Flower Committee. There were two groups trying to contend with each other, you know. I don't know, except my father was always -- his behavior puzzled me because he never went to church. See? So I would figure, "Well, wait a minute. He ain't going to church. So what does God give him? Some kind of special pass to get in?" Because he'd be there at home reading detective books -- detective stories, reading the newspaper. But his claim was that he was a Methodist. That's why he didn't go to the Baptist church.

BOND: Why didn't he go to the Methodist church?

BARAKA: Well, that's what I wanted to know. See? But then, you know, it all -- but this is the interesting thing. Once my mother died, he joined the church -- the Baptist church and became an ardent Baptist, or ardent church-goer anyway, and became a deacon and all that. You know, there was a Deacon Jones actually. And it was my father. But until he died -- he just died in April -- he, I mean, he went to church from the time my mother died until he got out. But I guess that was because, maybe, he then began to, like Bill Cosby said, "This is an old man trying to get into Heaven," so he's trying to, you know, work --

But that always puzzled me. Not puzzled me, but it always left a kind of, serious kind of concern. Suppose there is no God and there is no Heaven? And, you know, here my people spend all this time worshipping. As a matter of fact, I even have a play called The Election Machine Warehouse cause my grandfather, that was his job. He was a Republican -- he was a big-time Republican, and that's the job they gave him, night watchman in the election machine factory. And my sister and I used to jump on top of those machines and run up and down. It was a whole block long, all the election machines in the county were in there. We would run up and down on the top of those machines. And I would wonder -- you know, I wrote this play where the radio was -- you know, the radio was what was happening -- they used to really -- when radio starts talking to them -- you know. And I remember this guy who used to come on, "Good evening, my good colored friends. I'm from Heavenly Rest and -- " You know, he'd be selling coffins.

BOND: Uh huh, uh huh.

BARAKA: Right? Not coffins. Whatever you call -- ? The plots.

BOND: Yeah.

BARAKA: So I had this guy -- this same guy on the radio saying, "Good evening, my good colored friends. We're going to sell you these coffins because, you know, there is no God for the colored. And no matter how much you worship God, you're not going to see God. But we have a coffin that the devil cannot get in -- "

BOND: Uh, huh...

BARAKA: " -- so that you would lay in this coffin for thousands of years and the devil will not be able to get you." And my grandmother's sitting there listening to that, or at least that's what I have in the play, that it's, you know, my grandmother's sitting there listening to this, and she runs out the where the election machine is: "Everett, Everett -- !" -- talking to my grandfather: "The radio is talking to me. The radio -- the radio is saying we can't get into Heaven."

But that's the kind of stuff I would make up in my mind, sitting there listening to the radio and listening to this -- watching my grandmother and grandfather in that context, you know. Very, very funny, very special kind of context.

BOND: When you started going there, I thought you were going to talk about a poem, "When We'll Worship Jesus" --

BARAKA: Oh, yeah --

BOND: In which you question Christianity, the efficacy of Christianity to lead black people toward salvation, freedom, what have you --

BARAKA: I figured if we believed -- like I was saying last night about, you know, and -- Jimmy Bowen's and Du Bois' thing about, you know, this so-called primitive Christianity: " If we believe so strong, how come we got to be the slaves?" You know. That was my -- even as a little boy. Said, "Wait a minute -- if we that close to God and we that good" -- because I see these other people ain't that good. I see stuff going on in newspapers -- then how come we got to be the slaves? You know. And that is what that poem is asking.

So, I said, "You know, I'll worship Jesus when Jesus do something." I mean, at least box with black people's enemies. It's always been that [way]. But then I saw that Dr. King, on the other hand, could turn that black Christian mythology or, if you will, or that belief system, and utilize that as the kind of energizing force for a whole movement. Because obviously that's what that was. I mean, he used, you know, Christianity in that way. But then black leaders have mostly, throughout the years, have been ministers. I mean, even Malcolm X is a minister. But I think that is because we were never allowed to develop any kind of institutional advance secularly. You know what I mean.

BOND: Yeah. So you had to find your -- if you had leadership impulses -- ?

BARAKA: Right.

BOND: -- they had to come out over there.

BARAKA: Yeah, they had to come out of the church.