Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Formative Childhood Experiences

BOND: Let me ask you — think about these things. What do you see as the difference between vision? You’ve written about some early experiences, family experiences, where you had to go to an orphanage. What did this teach you? What did you learn from these experiences?

BERRY: Well, being in the orphanage is the earliest memory I have and that memory is of my brother’s voice, crying, which haunted me for years and I was so young that I couldn’t connect what he was crying about. It was just a memory of him crying and then he explained it to me. They all explained it to me. He was hungry and he was crying because he was hungry and he was just perpetually hungry because we were in this awful orphanage run by a man who took money from the local social services and didn’t spend it on the kids and it was like some horrible Charles Dickens’ story and he would whip the kids if they tried to find some food somewhere, a few crumbs, and one of the men who worked there would cook pork chops for himself, I was told, and then eat them and then give the bones, sell the bones to the kids because if their parents came, their one parent who came to see them, in some cases or a relative and left them money, he’d take the money and sell them the bones, so it was one of those horrible places, so I was there as a baby. I must’ve been about two or something.

My mother — my father had left and my mother didn’t have anyone to help her and so — and had nobody to keep us and so she put us in the orphanage and she would come to see us until she could figure out what else to do and later on, she came and got us, but I remember that experience and the crying which I can still hear now. It’s never gone away.

There were other kinds of formative experiences that I recall. The one about the motorcycle cop who in Nashville was very well known by everyone in the community, in the black community where I lived. He would drive around harassing black people and he drove up into the yard of my cousin where we lived after we got out of the orphanage and I must’ve been about four or something by then, five, four I guess, and we were all standing out in the yard which looked huge to me then and now I go back and it’s so tiny, playing — the kids — my older cousins would play ball and they would watch us in the summertime and all of a sudden this motorcycle, this thing, this noisy thing, rolled up into the yard and scattered all the little kids like baby chicks and we all just ran crying and he went around and around and around and around and around and then he went up to one of the kids and said what’s today and the kid said Monday and he said call me Mr. Monday and tried to run over him and our cousins grabbed us and then he drove off and I said to my older cousin, who was that, what is that, and he said po-lice. He told me it was the po-lice, so from then on in my mind, I associated po-lice with Mr. Monday who I found out — I don’t even know if his name was Monday, but he would do that on whatever day it was, go around and people would be sitting on the stoop and he would run up and say bad things to them, so that gave me some bad — that was a very bad experience.

And then there was the other one that I recall very well when I was working for this white family when I was about eleven and I was supposed to baby sit with their little kid and iron clothes while I was babysitting daytime in the summer, and I discovered there were some record albums on the shelf and I started playing them while I was working and I really loved one particular one and one day the woman came home and I said I had a great time today. I found this wonderful album here, you know. I really love this music, it’s great, it’s great, and she snatched it out of my hand and said you shouldn’t be listening to that, who told you you could listen to that? Leave those records alone and she said you just leave them alone, that’s not for you and I was very hurt because I didn’t know what I’d done. I mean, I knew I’d done something wrong, very wrong, and I went home and I told my Aunt Serena and she said, gal, you stay out of those white folks’ things and as I told somebody, I’d stay out of white folks’ things or if I don’t, I don’t tell them I’ve been in them, but it was mainly — this was one of Beethoven’s symphonies which I loved very much but every time I hear it now, I think about that woman telling me that that wasn’t for me, so maybe some of these things, the accumulation of them in some way, had something to do with the sense I have of injustice needing righting in the world, but I must tell you that I also continued to work there and I continued to play the music when she wasn’t there.

BOND: And she never caught you again?