Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Influences in Bronx

BOND: You mentioned your grandparents’ Sunday dinner table. Who else was it that has been significant in your early life? Who in your family and your school teachers, in your neighborhood, who touched you?

CANADA: Well, I have to start with the two people — my mother was one. She, you know — it’s funny, my mother always told us the key to this whole thing was reading. She just keeping saying the key to this is reading. And I would answer, no, no, no, the key to this is reading. You just have to read and she allowed me to read all kind of stuff. I was reading adult books when I was still in elementary school and she didn’t care if the books had curse words. She was like, no, the key is reading, all right? And I’d say, oh, let me read that book. So this idea that the key was reading and this is another thing — we were very poor, very poor, and my parents used to tell me stuff which I hated to hear them say it, right, because we couldn’t afford stuff like hair cuts and so your hair is not cut. Everybody else was laughing and teasing you. My mother would say, it’s not what’s on your head, it’s what’s in your head, that’s what matters, and I’d be like I don’t want to hear that. Could I just get a hair cut? But, you know what, years of those kinds of messages began to really seep in and suddenly I started saying that to myself, so that was initially I think what’s began to prepare me to work hard.

There were a couple of key people in my life separate than this. One was a young man who was growing up in the south Bronx who himself had dropped out of school and he just decided he was going to save me and I don’t know why. I don’t know why it was me and not any of the other kids, but he just grabbed ahold of me and he said you are not going to end up like himself. He said you’re going to school. You’re going to be successful and everybody looked up to him. His name was Mike. Everybody looked up to him and he actually stopped me. He wouldn’t let me drink. He wouldn’t let me smoke, right? Now, it’s not in the nice soft way that people might think. The things he told me he would do to me if he caught me, I couldn’t repeat, but the idea was he decided some of us have got to get through this thing and I’ve decided you’re one of the ones who’s going to do that so you wouldn’t see him in any of the formal education. He wasn’t a teacher, but he actually helped me navigate my way through the south Bronx and then after that, there were a couple of teachers who just decided that they would not accept sloppy work from me and I could write better than the other students and the teachers would come and they’d be furious at the writing and I said this is the best stuff in the class, what do you — and I knew it, right, and I was like so what are you getting on my case for? Why don’t you bother Paul? Look at his and they were like, no, no, this is nonsense. And they really could — made me because I had gotten lazy, simply because there was no competition around. They would not allow me to do sloppy work or work that would not sort of stand up outside of the neighborhood I was growing up in. Now, I think those kinds of folks really shaped my life.