Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Obligations of Black Leaders

BOND: Do you think black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans?

CANADA: You know what? I really do and I thought everybody assumed that we were on the same team. I’m just thinking it’s like football. Right, so you’re on my team so we’re all trying to score the touchdown and because you were black, I assumed you were on my team, and I hate to tell you how old I was before I found out that not everybody thinks like this. I was probably in my early forties and I was talking to family members and one of them asked me why do you do this. I said, “Well, I do this to help our people.” They said, “Why?” I said, “What do you mean why? You don’t feel any — ” They were like, “No.” And I was stunned. I’m like, “You don’t feel anything — ” “No, I don’t — I go out. I work. I do — ” I said, “But you don’t think you have to — ” And, so, then I thought, well, I’m assuming this and it’s not true, but do I believe it’s true. The answer to that is yes and I think that we have a responsibility to level the playing field to make America a better country and if you have benefited from being in this country, I think you have an obligation to level the playing field and if you’re African American, I’d like you start with African Americans. I don’t think you have to be limited there, but I don’t think you should ignore the plight of people who are oppressed, like if you’re a Native American. I would assume that you would try and help the Native American. If you’re Italian, I would assume — I wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. I think you would say, well, it’s a great country, I’m going to help my people. You extend it to other people so that was an assumption I had. It’s not a reality, meaning there’re a lot of people who don’t feel that way but I thought that’s how the game ought to be played.

BOND: But if the obligation exists, is there a point where the obligation ends?

CANADA: Yes. I think there is a point when the obligation ends and I think that’s when we’ve really leveled this playing field and I don’t mean that like that’s some lofty, you know, a hundred years from now kind of issue. I think that there are certain groups in this country that still don’t get equal opportunity and I don’t care if you’re talking about women, I don’t care if you’re talking about gays, I don’t care if you’re talking about African Americans, there’re these groups and I think we have to demand that America level this playing field and we are obligated to keep fighting that fight, in particular if we are from that group until this playing field is leveled.

Look, I don’t think we have to go outing people, right. In the gay community, a lot of time they say, well, I’m not going to let you keep that job and be gay and not say something about it. We’re going to out you. I don’t think that’s what we are doing. I don’t think we have to go and stand in front of Fortune 500 companies and say what have you done for black people lately, but in quiet conversation when we have to, I think we have to remind people that we need their need and their help will be important and that there’s an obligation and they can reject that but I think that people need to be reminded that the playing field’s not level because here’s one of the challenges: the better you do in this country, the harder it is to understand that others aren’t doing as well and why they’re not, because most of us who’ve done well, it’s because we’ve worked so damn hard. And you say, well, if they worked hard like this, then they would do well, too, so what are you bugging me for and I think that it becomes easy to look at them and say if you all just would get up and go to work and do this, everybody — you get your kids and your family in that same environment and then say the same thing and it’s a problem. And I think that people as you get wealthier and you live in these communities that are more and more exclusive, you forget how hard it is for some families growing up, so to remind people to say yes, I think that’s an obligation you have to do, that’s terrific. I don’t think it’s divisive yet.

There’s lots of things I thought wouldn’t happen in my lifetime. I would love to think that there’s a point before I die that I say, "All right, black people. Right, it’s over, we’ve done that. Now, everybody go do your own American thing," because this is one America and I do think other countries feel like that. I do think where people consider it their children. I was over in Norway and there were Norwegian children and they were concerned about Norwegian children and I looked at Norwegian children, they look like Norwegian children but people were concerned about that. I’d love to see America get to that same place and then I don’t think this issue of what race and nationality you are is going to be as important.