Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Social Consciousness: Culture of Achievement

HEIGHT: But the thing I also think was characteristic of those days was the quality of adult -- of caring adults helping you along. I think that was a very important force in my community, that adults in the community felt that they -- well, they had the right to correct you or whatever you wished to do. I remember one time I was on my way to represent my school in a contest, and I was about to step on a streetcar and our pastor's wife called me. She said, "Dorothy Height, where are you going at 10:30 in the morning?" it was. Well, by the time I got off and explained it to her, the car was gone. By the time I got downtown to take the exam, I was too late and I had to come back the next month, which meant that I had to go back and start preparing all over again. So that -- but I would not dare have moved on with her challenging me. I couldn't say, "I'm going -- the high school is sending me downtown." I had to tell that to her. And I think it was the quality of attention so many people in the community gave, and so much encouragement. And I think that's something that has driven me today to be concerned about how we try to create a climate -- I call it a culture of achievement, a kind of climate in which people expect you to achieve, but they help you.

BOND: Now, you're describing what was a fairly common phenomenon in black communities then, and it's lost, for a variety of reasons. How can -- can it be reclaimed? Can it be recreated? Can we create this climate of achievement?

HEIGHT: I think we can. I think that we can have high expectations. When I wrote my memoirs, I dedicated it to my mother's high expectations, but I could have said the high expectations of so many adults. You know, you would meet a person like A. Philip Randolph, and he would say to you, "You have real potential. You have to do something." In other words, people took the time not to just assume it, but they took the time to say to you, "I hope that you will keep working on this."

Or I had an opportunity to be a part of a small group, and they would talk to us about taking responsibility and, you know, standing up on your own, standing up for what you believe in. That, to me, was the heart of it, helping me to see that you had to have your own convictions, that you were not just following along what other people do. And I think that one of the things that we can do today is to take more time with our young people and take some time with helping them understand that they have a potential. It may not always be the same, or the same kind, but whatever it is that they can develop, that they can be what they want to be. They can do a lot if they could just get that sense.