Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Unpredictable Leadership Catalyst: How HIV Shaped Life and Work

BOND: Let me characterize the making of leaders in three ways: (a) great people cause great events; (b) movements make leaders; or (c) the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Which of these was your path to leadership, a, b or c?

JONES: The last one.

BOND: So the confluence of unpredictable events created you appropriate for your times.

JONES: Uh huh. Okay, I wasn't even thinking about myself. I was thinking of who I think great leaders are. I see myself as maybe an influential maker but I don't know if I've been a leader. Abraham Lincoln, Mr. [Barack] Obama are the people —

BOND: Yes, but in this, you're a leader and you think your leadership role in the position you presently occupy now is a confluence of events?

JONES: Uh huh.

BOND: Various things which occurred in your life and made you who you are now.

JONES: And I appreciate this question. It's a somewhat embarrassing question because one could easily step into all sorts of caca around it. Let me give you an example. I think that there is no — We couldn't underestimate the weight of the AIDS epidemic on the way my narrative has found its place in the culture. For good or for bad, Arnie Zane and I being two of the first persons publicly to go forward with his HIV on McNeil Lehrer Report and, if any of your listeners want to look it up, it was about 19 — He died in '88. This might've been in '86 or '87, and he was public at a time when people were hiding it like crazy. I came out as HIV positive after he died. Maybe I was tricked out by a writer from The Advocate, a gay paper, who asked me and I casually mentioned it and he published it in the first line. Suddenly, it was out, but I made a work called "Still Here," because of the feeling of Arnie's death and what I assume could be my death. It didn't happen that way. I was moved to make a work that tried to be some sort of great culmination, summation statement about mortality and then I did a very big work that got all sorts of attention. We're talking like the front pages of papers. It had people fighting about victim art and what things were appropriate.

Now, my personal story and a time that was freaked out about the plague, I remember getting calls two years before that from major publications wanting me to talk about it and I refused. Once I did talk about it, suddenly all of this attention, whooom, came on me, came on that work. That work is considered a seminal work in the development of American dance and I think it should be.

Now, does that make me a great leader? That makes me a person who actually had something coming at them. They moved toward it. They did the best that they could do and the rest is done by the culture, so that's how I answer that question, not to be in any way disingenuously self-effacing because I'm certainly not, but I have enough smarts to know that sometimes it is literally the way the wind is blowing and how it catches your sails.

Heroes — the same idea. People who have performed heroically, you ask them later, well, what — They say, well, you know, I just did what I thought I had to do at that moment. That's my understanding of circumstance and leadership in some degree. Let's hope our leaders are well prepared. Yes, I could speak the King's English. Yes, I have the twin ballast of a serious understanding of 20th century modernism and my mother can sing a spiritual that can break your heart, so I think I know what those ingredients I put together regularly.

BOND: And you have all the ingredients?

JONES: I have the ingredients. In other words, you might say I'm prepared enough for what comes down the pike.