Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Supporting the love of language

DOVE: I held onto it. I still didn't like come right out and say I'm going to be a poet or anything like that because I also had been brought up in a very strong black community where it was just assumed if you got good grades you were going to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher and be the credit to your race and to be a credit to your race, you had to be one of those three things, so I entered college, the University of Miami, Miami University of Ohio, I entered there thinking that I would be one of those things and I changed my major about six times my first year, kind of I wasn't going to be a doctor because I didn't like the sight of blood and thought maybe a lawyer, but it wasn't until I was a junior that I admitted to my parents that I wanted to be a poet. I kept gravitating over to the writers and I finally declared English as my major because I had heard that you could be an English major and still be a lawyer, so my parents were happy, I thought. Another piece of serendipity and a teacher that really influenced me, I was in an advanced composition class. It was a core curriculum at Miami University, so this was a class I had to take and though I loved it, I was in this class when the professor got ill and they asked the fiction writing professor to take over. They figured fiction, composition, close, and he came in and he said, "we're going to write stories and you'll learn composition from that, because that's what I know," and so I was actually kind of catapulted into my first writing class and I thought, you mean you can take courses in this. I can get a degree in this? And what's what started me on that path and so I came home when I was a junior and told my mother, "I'm going to be a poet."

BOND: What did she say? She was encouraging?

DOVE: Well, we were in the kitchen and she said, "you tell your father." That's what she said.

BOND: And what did he say?

DOVE: It was really great, actually. I was terrified, but I went in and he was reading the paper as he did every evening from cover to cover and I said, "I want to be a poet." And he stopped, put down his paper, swallowed, and then he said, "well, I've never understood poetry. Don't be upset if I don't read it." And I took that as an expression of faith. I was happy he didn't blow, you know, say, "what? Are you kidding me?" But I think it was an expression of faith. It's like, well, this is a path you want to go down. It's not one that I've ever looked at, but I still love you.

BOND: But he obviously loved language. You told me before we started that he was self-taught in German and Italian and that as a young girl, he taught you German, so he was language conscious.

DOVE: He was very language conscious and he did. There were German books in the house, there were Italian books in the house and he had taught himself German and Italian before going into the war, the Second World War because he didn't know where he was going to be deployed and later when I asked him, he said, "well, I wanted to learn the language of the enemy. It could come in handy." [laughs] And so as a child, I saw those books on the shelves and, in fact, one of the German books was a book of poetry, a very beautiful volume of [Friedrich von] Schiller, a long poem called "The Song of the Bell," and it had illustrations and I would look through this book and think, "I can't read this. I want to read this." So he was very conscious of language and if my brother and I — My brother's two years older and so we were the ones who were always the battering ram I guess in the family kind of leading things. Whenever we asked him a question about something, he would go to the dictionary and say, "well, let's look it up together" and then we'd spend about a half an hour or so looking up the etymology of a word so he was very language conscious. It's true.