Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Brown vs. the Board of Education

BOND: Nikki Giovanni, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.

GIOVANNI: Thank you.

BOND: I'm going to ask a few questions about Brown v. Board of Education as we begin. Can you remember hearing about it, being decided? What did it mean to you?

GIOVANNI: I don't want to say something like "I was a kid."

BOND: You were ten years old or younger.

GIOVANNI: I was born in '43 and so that was '54. So I was maybe eleven, so what, fifth grade? And what I remember was my parents, we lived in a suburb called Wyoming, Ohio, and it's outside of Cincinnati, about twenty minutes outside of Cincinnati, going north. I remember everybody came home, right. We lived at 1038 Burns. We had a front yard. I remember because I was on my bike and don't ask me why, but there was something in the air. Actually it was a little sidewalk cycle. I remember leaving my bike in the yard, which I was not allowed to do, and running upstairs. "Everybody?" I remember my father said to me "Now that'll show 'em!" I was trying to put together what everybody was excited about. But the whole neighborhood just -- it was not a block party, but there was this sort of celebration that sprang forth.

BOND: So people came out of their houses and gathered together?

GIOVANNI: Came out of -- from work because my parents were home because my parents were school teachers. But they should not have been home when I was home. And you know, again, I'm eleven years old, but that was my -- if you said, "What one thing do you remember about Brown?" that's what I remember. I just seemed like the whole neighborhood was excited about something. The kids were trying to figure out what it was, because it was like May, so it wasn't any kind of holiday we could put our hands on. But everybody was happy.

BOND: Could you tell from the expressions of adults around you then, this was something positive, something positive had happened?

GIOVANNI: Oh yeah.

BOND: And did you have any idea then what it meant?


BOND: And what it was about? None at all? Do you -- can you remember when you discovered what this meant?

GIOVANNI: Well. Sure. Because my sister, even though it's Ohio, my sister, whose name is Gary, ended up going to Wyoming High School. And that turned out to be not one of the really great experiences in life because what we were going to have the next year, and I remember that very vividly, is the murder of Emmett Till that August. And Gary and Beverly Waugh and someone else -- I forget her name now, I can see her face -- were the three black girls integrating Wyoming High School. And the Till case came up -- and of course they no longer have what used to be called Civics -- the professor in Civics said he got -- Emmett Till got -- what he deserved. Gary and Beverly stood up, and I do believe cursed at him.

BOND: Really?

GIOVANNI: Yeah, because remember Jet had those pictures?

BOND: Yes. So there was no way that you could look at this and think that anybody?and, you know, the families always said "attitudes, I guess," but they were kicked out of school. I mean, they -- he kicked them out of the class, and they went to the principal and he kicked them out. Mr. Waugh, Beverly's father and Gus, our father, went up to the superintendent of schools -- not to the principal, but to the superintendent -- and demanded an apology. So that was my -- again what I was connecting the dots on, because Wyoming integrated and that didn't seem a good idea. So I ended up attending school in Knoxville, Tennessee, because I remember the family discussion was, "We've already given one to integration, so we're not going to give two." That was probably my good luck.

BOND: Yeah. So looking back on it now from today's perspective, what is -- what has the Brown decision meant both to you and generally speaking?

GIOVANNI: I think the Brown decision was absolutely crucial because Plessy v. Ferguson had to be over -- had to be overthrown. Separate, as the Warren Court said -- and thank God for the deaths and things that made that 9-0 decision possible -- but separate is inherently unequal. If the question is, and I suppose it is a question, has this been troublesome to the black community because it's put us in sort of a limbo -- and the black community, I think, is still reeling from that limbo? Yeah, it's been troublesome. But it's been necessary because you couldn't -- we could not continue under an apartheid system. It just, it's not going to work. The Dred Scott decision was bad, and Plessy was worse. And it was time to bring America, as much as we can, into the twentieth century so we could head for the twenty-first.

BOND: In the material prepared for this interview I read something you'd said, and this is not a quote, that there were costs and benefits associated with Brown. Do you think the benefits outweighed the costs?

GIOVANNI: Absolutely.

BOND: And it was worthwhile?

GIOVANNI: Absolutely. And I say that simply because a people cannot -- I mean this is Lincoln. I mean God, what's wrong with it that Nikki Giovanni is going to quote Abe Lincoln. But if people can have it half slave and half free -- ? The barbarism that we saw from our fellow Americans was always there and everybody tried to act like, "Oh, maybe Mack [Charles] Parker deserved it. Maybe Emmett deserved it. Maybe all of the bodies that we found these were just guys who were raping white women. And hmm, what should we say about the women that we lynched because we forget how many women were lynched and how many children?" That had to stop. That had to stop. Somebody had to tell those people you really cannot continue to murder black people with impunity the way that you're doing. And it's a message that still needs to be reinforced. You can't murder blacks. You can't murder gays.

I mean Matthew Shepard is a white Emmett Till. You can't -- you can't do that. It's time that we found another way to exist. It's clear when you look at the President, and I'm really not a fan of the President at all -- and I'm talking about Bush in case this is eighty years from now -- but Bush is an idiot. But he's also back to the level of barbarism. He thought, "Oh, I can just go and bomb these people, and they'll what? Love me?" It's got to stop. That level of violence has to stop. Martin [Luther King Jr.] was right. It has to stop. I don't know that we can make the beloved community, but you can't continue to put people over there and say, "Well, they're going to be all right." I -- as much as you -- and I don't want to speak for you, Julian -- but we grew up in another kind of community that some would say, "Well, you all made out all right in segregation." But it was too high a price.

BOND: I wanted to ask you about that. There are people who say, "Well, look at you. You grew up under segregation. You grew up under segregation. You turned out okay. This was a nurturing time. All children learned how to read then. They don't now." They romanticize this past. Do you find that so?

GIOVANNI: I find that people want what is called the good ol' days, but I'm sixty years old. I talk to some people that I know and they say, "Like, wasn't high school fun?" I don't remember a damn thing about high school that was fun except that you got out of it. But I'm not nostalgic like that for the past. I think that all children don't learn to read, by the way today, but they should. And we no longer have eighth grade -- I grew up with eighth grade graduation. We had eighth grade graduation because we knew that the majority of our classmates would not make it to the twelfth grade. They had kids like me who were going to be on what is called "college track." But we had so many other kids who were going to be not on college track, who were being told, "No, you do not have what it takes." So we in America -- I teach at Virginia Tech -- we are still having youngsters at Virginia Tech, black and white, who are first-generation college. So these were not good days, because now at least people feel like "I should go to college," or "I want my children to go to college. That I shouldn't just suck it up and say I'm not worthy."