Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Connecting with Different Audiences

BOND: Now, do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race or all white? Are you different?

JEALOUS: I don’t know that I’m different, I think I’m aware. See, I grew up in a small white town in California and I spent my summers in the black middle class in west Baltimore and you had to act differently. I mean, if I call a woman who was older than me back in California “Mrs.,” she thought I was insulting her and reminding her that she was old and had wrinkles. If I call a woman who was older than me on the East Coast by her first name, my grandmother would hit me in the back of my head, you know — not hard, but just, you know. And I had a lot of anxiety about that because my grandmother called them by their first name. I had to remember their last name. I didn’t see them for 10 months. It was a set-up.

So, I guess any — part of being an organizer is just being aware of who you’re talking to and what the kind of cultural norms are and whether you say “Mrs.” or whether you say “Jane” or whether you hug somebody or you shake their hand. But the message is the same and the sense of urgency is the same, and the, you know, sort of willingness to talk about uncomfortable subjects and to challenge people is the same. Right now, we’re at an historical moment where all of us need to be thinking about how we talk about issues of race because, one, there’s been a lot of black civil rights advocates who invested a lot of time doing a lot of communications strategy work and we’ve learned some things, but also because — simply because the bigots have been dying very rapidly, a certain generation of people who were really hardened, you know. There seems to be more people in the middle who could go either way.

I mean, you talk about the experience of workers in the primaries. I can never forget folks saying that in gauging independents in New Hampshire that they had a number of white men cry because they didn’t know — they just couldn’t decide whether they should vote for Obama or for McCain. Now, obviously, there’s a political spectrum that goes far beyond both those men, but they’re fairly radically different political choices. There’s a lot of people like that in this country, and so while I don’t change much other than greetings and so forth and decorum in how I talk to different groups, I am trying to figure out how to change how I talk to all groups because I do think that winning our goal in the NAACP, our final goal which is to really make manifest Lincoln’s dream of one nation for everybody, might require that we all change how we talk to everybody.