Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Values from Grandmother

BOND: What about your grandparents and your first grade teacher?

CANADA: Well, people know that my grandmother is a woman that I loved. She passed away some time ago, but she was probably one of the most unique people that I ever met because even as a five-year-old, she would talk to me like a real person. People don’t usually see children and so they don’t ask you really important questions. My grandmother would ask me questions like "Do you really believe in God?" And I would have a conversation. "No, I don’t, Grandma, and let me tell you why," and I’d go and I’ll explain stuff, and she’d listen to me and she’d say, "Well, you know what, let me tell you," and would have these really deep conversations. Now, if someone came in the room I would have to stop and she would stop, right, because people would’ve thought that’s not appropriate. Kids don’t talk like that. You weren’t supposed to speak your mind but she treated me as if I really had a brain and it was working and it was worth listening to even when she didn’t agree with me and that kind of opportunity really propelled my own I think cognitive development because she allowed me the freedom to speak my mind, to explore boundaries which we were just told, "No, because I told you so, that’s why it is," and she would say, "Well, why do you think that?" And then she would come back and say, "This is what I believe," so that really had an impact on me. My grandmother—

The biggest impact was I thought the key to everything was money. We were poor and if we could just get money, that everything would be okay and my grandmother was the kind of woman and people may know someone like this. If you ever hear of the Brinks truck, right, the doors pop open and the bags of money pour on the highway and some person always takes the bag into the police station, even though no one’s around. That’s my grandmother. We would sit there and say, "You would take it — " "Why would you — " "Because it’s not mine." "But if no one could see you take it — " "No, I would never keep something that —" And we would sit there and say, "But we don’t even have any money, you don’t have a dollar." It didn’t matter. She told us it’s about values and these values — you don’t steal, you don’t lie, and she honestly meant that and her job was to try and save my soul because she knew I listened to her and I was like, "Yeah, if I ever got that my hands on that money, it’d go right underneath my bed and I would — " and she really believed that was wrong and so it took years. I would love to say that she got to me in a year or two. It took years and my goodness, this same grandmother who I then, after I really got grown, I was in college, and I was planning my whole life how I was going to pay her back, right, because I realized what she had done for me and how much time she had spent with me and she was always available to me and she got cancer and it was really painful and bad and she had a pretty painful death, but she was a real believer in God. I mean, she really believed in Him and she was trying to live by a set of principles that she felt like were Christian principles and I used to always—

This is now, you know, I’m talking, I'm talking, this is 1972 and we had all of these sayings about religion being the opium of the masses. We were really rebelling. There were preachers and we were — and I remember I went in to her because she was a good woman. She lived her whole life and I always asked her if God exists, why is that good people have to suffer, right, and so why is it that the bad people always seem to get the money and have all the fun and we would have these conversations. I remember going in and she was on her deathbed and I said her, “Grandma, you’ve lived a good life. You’ve never lied. You’ve never stolen. You’ve done everything right by God and now this. It’s painful. It’s really terrible. Do you believe?” And she said, “I believe more now than ever.” It never was about believing when things were going great.

And I never understood faith until then. And people sometimes say just don’t you — how is it you always keep this attitude that — but I remember what she told me — faith is really when things are tough. It’s easy to believe when you’re getting everything you want and so she really had an impact on me that lasts till this day.