Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Defining Success

BOND: You mentioned a moment ago having to be better than whites. Being as good as wasn’t good enough. Did people tell you that? Did you hear that being said by family or teachers or others? How’d that come to you?

CANADA: Around the Sunday dinner table which was a formal dinner in my grandparents’ house. You had regular dinners, but Sunday was formal. The conversation would come up and it would cross generations. So for my uncles who were ten years older than me, the message would go out. No, but, you know, you’ve got to be better. If you want to just get a break, you’ve got to be better. You’ve got to be the best. You can’t be — you’ve got to be the best or they’re not going to let you in. We heard it at every level — if you’re not the best, they’re not going to let you in and we believed that, so this was coming from I think people who loved us, cared for us, but also understood that we didn’t know what we were facing. We didn’t understand that prejudice and racism really existed because we were so cloistered in many ways by living in these segregated communities that as they began to prepare us to leave those communities, that then we would face it.

Now, by the way, so I never faced this until I went to college, right, because I stayed and my elementary school was all black, middle school all black, high school was all black, so now I go to Bowdoin up in Maine — 90 percent, 95 percent, white, and then I understood. I was stunned because I was the best. I was the best in my high school, right, so I went up to Maine. Wait until I go up there — I’m going to show these people something. I was at the bottom and then I said, "Wait a second, this separate thing is not working for us," because if I’m at the very bottom at a place like Bowdoin, then that means all the other kids who were below me, they don’t even have a chance and what we thought was a good education was not a good education and, again, Brown v. Board of Education came to my mind, because this issue of separate but equal — see, even, there was no one for us to integrate with per se because I think in places like New York City, it was all based on where you lived and geography and, you know, and to some degree, if you got into one of the specialized high schools, you would be mostly the majority of folks in those schools would mostly be white, but you had to take a test to get in those places and every other school was a neighborhood school, so we didn’t come in contact with this very often and some kids never came in contact with it if they didn’t get out of their community and end up at a school like a Bowdoin or another school that was mostly white.