Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Segregated Education in North

BOND: Geoffrey Canada, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.

CANADA: Thank you.

BOND: I know you were only two years old when the Brown decision came down in 1954, but when it became — you became known about it and what it promised, what did you think would happen?

CANADA: Well, this is really fascinating because I grew in the south Bronx in New York City and we saw that issue as having to do with being across the Mason-Dixon Line. Now, you ask, were we totally segregated? Absolutely, we were. Did I go to schools that were totally segregated? Absolutely. But in my mind, this had nothing to do with me. This was happening some place else and it was a while before I started really becoming aware of how significant this was. It was a piece of history that I heard glimmers of, but I think my grandparents who had come from North Carolina to Harlem and later to the Bronx to get away from the oppression and to try and find work, we thought we were living the good life. I think later on we began to realize that there were real limits and this major decision was as critical for me and those of us in the North as it was for those people in the South.

BOND: Do you remember how old you were when this dawned on you that this affected me, affected us?

CANADA: Yeah. I was probably twelve or thirteen and the first part of my life, I, you know, like a lot of African Americans at that particular point in time, I wasn’t necessarily too thrilled being black, right, or being Negro as we called ourselves. I was very brainwashed by the culture I was living in and we used to tease one another about having big lips and a big nose and dark skin and I remember I used to constantly argue with my brothers that, no, no, no, no, I’m yellow, I’m not black, right? There would be this thing and that was like almost an insult and that’s the culture that I grew up in.

I’ll tell you what changed it. I was standing on a corner in the south Bronx and a couple of people from the Nation of Islam — we didn’t even know who these were guys were — came and they began to talk to us about being brainwashed and the older guys sort of, you know, they laughed, they just sort of blew them off, but they started saying things, like have you ever thought about why everything bad is black and they began to say black that, black Monday, but and I said there and I said, oh, my goodness, there may be something to this and then I — it feels like the veils were sort of removed from my eyes and I began to look around and I said, oh, my goodness, what’s going on here and the place that it impacted I think in my own consciousness the most was at the schools. I began to look to see what was happening in the schools and I began to look at a system. I was in sort of the number one class and they called it — I was in 41 and 51 and then the classes went back and it was all based on what someone thought was your ability and kids even in one grade, I mean, one class behind, so I was in 61. The kids in 62, no one thought that those kids would go to college and they didn’t pretend that they thought. They were hoping they might be able to finish high school and kids who were in 65, no one even thought they could finish high school and so I sat there and thought this is not the way other people are living. There’re other places in this country and race seemed to have a primary sort of impact on how people thought about your life expectancy and suddenly I became very interested in Brown v. Board of Education and what I think it was trying to do which was not just equalize the I think the funding and, say, integration but to actually allow African Americans to get an education so that they could improve their lot in life and that wasn’t happening for those us in the North.

BOND: Do you think those kids in 62 and 63 absorbed this expectation that other people had for them?

CANADA: It was totally absorbed. I am still even to this day absolutely devastated by the generations of young people who believed that they were not going to be successful, so this is — you know, in my family, I’m one of the first ones to go to college, but there were about four of us who went to college. I was fine because I was the kind of kid that I was always very gregarious and teachers — the other three, each one of them were told — my aunt, my brother and my uncle, each one of them were told that you should not even think about college and so these were the ones who luckily just sort of somehow fought through that. It doomed almost all those other kids because that’s — you internalize "I’m not smart enough," and it made you not want to work hard, it made you not think you could do the work so you didn’t bother studying. You didn’t do the homework because you thought, "What’s the point, where am I going with this thing," and I think there were generations who were destroyed by that system.