Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Taking Risks and Acknowledging Mistakes

BOND: I wonder if this sense I'm getting from you of an enormous inner-direction, an almost inner-compulsion, if this created tensions in your family circle, in your larger circle. I'm thinking specifically of being expelled from Fisk. You get expelled from Fisk and -- because you, at least the school says, you didn't receive permission from the dean to go home for Thanksgiving vacation. It's incredible to imagine today that you --

GIOVANNI: Oh, there's a bunch of other things --

BOND: Yeah. So I mean this is something you could have done. You could have gone and asked permission and you could have not done those other things. But you did those things. So what kind of tension, if any, did this create in your family circle?

GIOVANNI: Well, my grandfather graduated Fisk in 1905 so my grandmother was embarrassed. There's no question about that. And she came down to Fisk. She took the bus and came down to Fisk. It was like, "You know, your grandfather graduated in 1905, and I think you're going to get kicked out." And I said, "Yeah, it looks like I'm going to kicked out." Because you could -- we were on a collision course. There's no question about that.

And I did, and I think that Grandmother was not disappointed but embarrassed. But it's Knoxville, and Knoxville really has always been to me like, "Oh yeah, you made a mistake," and you go on. Now my mother -- and Mommy's crazy -- and I think it was the first time I realized she was nuts. My mother said, "What did she do to you? What did the dean do to you?" Because in Mommy's mind it was all the dean's fault. Mommy's best friend was a woman named Teresa Elliot who has since died. Teresa was like an aunt to me and just so close. Teresa was like, "Yeah, there's something wrong with Dean [Ann] Cheatam."

Actually I saw Ann Cheatam at the Martin -- “In the Spirit of Martin” at the Smithsonian -- and it was so wonderful because she said, "I don't think you know me." How long has it been, thirty years? She said, "I'm Ann S. Cheatam." I said, "Oh, my God. What a favor you did me!" And she laughed. She said, "Do you think so?" I said, "Yeah, I do." Because failures are important, and it was a failure. And I wasn't going to fool myself about that. I had to think it through, but no matter what everybody -- everybody was being supportive of me because that's the kind of nutty, crazy family I have. But I knew that it was a failure, and I recognized that I had indeed embarrassed my grandmother, though she's not going to ever say anything to me like that. I recognized that that's what I had done. I had embarrassed her.

BOND: And your parents, who surely valued education, must have -- what'd they think?

GIOVANNI: Well, they got their tuition back. I mean that was -- my father wanted his money back. "Well, if she's not in school can I have my tuition back?" and he got it. But our family doesn't function that way. I mean we -- thank God we're not mass murderers or we'd be -- Mommy would be, "Oh, she's a really good mass murderer. She got thirty people." I mean we just don't think like that. I grew up in a -- valuing education, Julian, and you come from a background, that valuing education is not valuing schooling. It's like valuing religion is not loving the church. You can't let the preacher keep you from Jesus, you know. I mean, if you can't start to separate those things -- so I would have remained educated whether I --

BOND: At the same time there's a kind of credentialing --

GIOVANNI: There's a credentialing --

BOND: -- that many people value that goes with the formality of education, which you had, by having this inner-direction, you had cut yourself off from that credentialing.

GIOVANNI: I was endangering it. I did attend the University of Cincinnati. And I did very well because I've always been well read and so I'm at UC, which is a hometown, and I had a job at Walgreens. It doesn't take you very long to realize whatever life holds it cannot be Walgreens. It just cannot be. And so I knew I needed to go back to school. So I wrote Fisk, because if you're going to have a failure than that's where you have to go to correct it. And I've never, and I'm saying it to you now, and I wrote it in Gemini, I never misunderstood that I had done something wrong and stupid. So it was time to get it straightened out, because I can't go forward if I'm carrying this baggage that always says, "It wasn't my fault." Paul Simon has that wonderful song “When something goes wrong I'm the first to admit it and the last one to know." But I -- you accept responsibility.

You know why I'm glad Martha Stewart's going to jail?

BOND: Why?

GIOVANNI: Because she knew damn well she was insider trading. I would have still not cared about that all that much, if they hadn't tried to put it off on the kid. When she tried to say it was the fault of the assistant to -- you know, her assistant, it was Douglas Faneuil's fault -- I thought, "That's trashy." Grownups don't put their responsibilities on children. So I knew it was my responsibility to go back to Fisk, to admit that it was my fault because Dean Cheatam only did what she thought she should do. She would have had to have been a better person than she was --

BOND: At the same time didn't Fisk excise the records --

GIOVANNI: No, they --

BOND: -- and remove her, Dean Cheatam's, critique of you?

GIOVANNI: Sure. But this is going to be of a new dean.

BOND: That seems to me the admission that Fisk had some part in this. They had made some mistake.

GIOVANNI: But we had a new dean, Jackie [Blanche] Cowan was the new dean. She accepted responsibility for Fisk, but she had nothing to do -- this is what I'm trying to say to everybody -- had nothing to do with my accepting my responsibility that I messed up. If you don't do that, you can't go forward. When you mess up you have to think it through. But you have to -- Fisk did do something wrong. Stephen Wright who is a -- the president of Fisk and Mrs. Wright -- I did some fund raisers for them in -- it was fun. I said to the doctor, I said you don't remember me. He said, "Oh yeah. I remember you very well. We did, we kicked you out of school." He said, "I think I'm sorry." I said, "I'm not."

Because at any point in life something needs to happen to you that makes you reassess. I say that to kids all the time, you know. "If you go through school with a four point, if you've always made A's it really means you haven't taken hard subjects. Because if you're always making A's you need to take something that you don't know anything about. If you never have a risk, you can't grow from it." And so I'm not afraid of -- I'm not afraid of failure. But I'm not afraid to admit that I'm wrong.