Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Breaking Barriers

BOND: I remember when I was young saying that Jackie Robinson broke through with the Dodgers because he was better than all of the other baseball players and that therefore we black people didn’t have to be as good. We had to be better. Was that part of your coming up years?

CANADA: This was exactly how we felt, that in the end, if you were not better, you were not going to be able to get the same opportunity that someone would say, oh, no, no, it’s not race, we just don’t, you know — you just didn’t reach that threshold so we really did grow up believing that. By the way, I think a generation later that was not the case. I think that people actually began to underachieve because that same pressure wasn’t on the next generation because I think my generation was part of the generation of firsts. The first one to do this and the first one to do that and the first the one to do this and so we were always sort of breaking through these barriers and then once the barriers are broken through, everybody said, ah, so what’s the big deal, right?

BOND: So was that what stopped this breakthrough barrier impulse that we’ve broken that barrier so therefore — what made it stop?

CANADA: I think that for a lot of us we thought that the biggest challenge we were going to face was just getting access and, boy, if you just gave us access, we could just go out and do anything. Now, we understood that because you had to be better and you’re going to have to work harder, but you know what, that’s the kind of preparation you need for leadership. Right? You end up working harder and longer and being more focused and more determined than anyone else. We were doing it because we were trying to prove that we could do it. I think that for a lot of kids this pressure to be the best, to prove that you can do what other people haven’t been able to do, that that pressure really lessened. Now, there are lots of reasons. It’s not like suddenly after my generation the schools got better, the inner city suddenly became wonderful. Everybody got great jobs, so all of those barriers remained the same, but I think this sense of that we were in a sort of a race to the top, that we had to get there and just tell the world — oh, no, we can be a surgeon or I can be a businessman or I can be the first woman that runs the law firm, that those kinds of pressures we felt intimately growing up in school and we felt that it was an obligation to our race to do that, that we had to continually knock these barriers down so you couldn’t say we couldn’t do this, so no matter what it was —

Look, the first time we saw those Williams sisters playing tennis. Oh, there’s another barrier. Oh, we got another one. We said, oh, they’re scared now because we’re coming after them in tennis. Next thing, we’ll have them in ice hockey, right? I mean, it’s just like — it was just this sense that we had to say to the world we can do all of these things at an equal level and therefore this issue about whether or not there’s some genetic predisposition for any of this stuff, we can throw it out the window and we thought at that point, we’d be seen just as human beings.

BOND: But using the Williams’ sisters as an example, after them, with, say, Tiger Woods as an exception, we haven’t seen the black ice hockey star. Where is he and why hasn’t he shown himself?

CANADA: I think that some of this has to do with where we are growing up and there’re communities and most of the communities I’ve been in, ice hockey is not something — you would have to go out of your way to find it, so that meant that even if you were talented, you were probably — the chance of that one family or two families would end up with a talented young person who could do that I think are probably rare.

I’ll tell you this — but I think once you break through, I would bet, and I don’t know this for a fact, but I would bet there are a thousand young African American tennis players hoping — they’re playing right now thinking that maybe I’m the one, right? That I can — but before them, I don’t think people felt — it just wasn’t our sport. It was like if you put a tennis court there, there was no one to really tell you how the game went, where’re you going to get the rackets, so I think that every time we do one of these, we open up the door. I certainly know and if you play golf, and I’m a real hacker at golf because I learned it really late in life, but I loved it, and I know it’s had an impact on all kinds of folks, the fact that Tiger Woods was there, but people forget. Now, so Tiger Woods is young, not from my generation, but from a younger. People forget. There were actually discussions about whether or not they were not going to let Tiger Woods in certain clubhouses because they were still restricted. I mean, I’m not talking 1800s. I’m not talking Brown v. Board, I’m just talking yesterday this was still part, so we’re still breaking through these doors even today which is a little sad, but I think that there’s, you know what, did he have to be better than everybody else to do it? Yes, he did.

BOND: Yes, he did.

CANADA: Yes, he did. And was he? Yes. And would it allow some other black professionals to just come up? I think so. I think so.