Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Teacher

OGLETREE: I had in high school a wonderful teacher by the name of John Heflin. And John had been my basketball coach when I was a freshman in high school. But he also was the one who first started pushing me toward reading black books, and reading about people like Richard Wright and understanding the black experience in ways that I never imagined before. And he wasn't trying to tell me how to think. He was trying to tell me to read this and draw my own conclusions about it. And I started seeing a sense of how these African American writers who had written in the '50s and the '60s were now relevant to me as I became a high school student.

And it sort of radicalized my whole thinking about race and oppression. And I give him credit. He went onto Stanford when I was there. He now teaches at Kent State. And he doesn't even realize how much he did for me by giving me those books that made me angry. And that may have been his whole purpose because in every book that he gave me, there was always a black villain, no matter what the story was, and that's Bigger Thomas or any of the rest of them, there was Manchild in the Promised Land. There was always an unhappy story.

And he knew I'd come back and say, "Professor Heflin, you know this is, this is crazy! Why did this happen?" And he would just smile and say, "Why do you think it happened?"

BOND: And that made you figure it out for yourself.

OGLETREE: It made me think critically about not just being angry at the author, That's what I -- "Why would you write a book like this about black people?"

BOND: Yeah.

OGLETREE: And then it made me have a much more sophisticated thinking about "Now I understand their world." No matter what they did, they're still in a world where race matters. And that certainly helped me think about why race matters as I went on to high school and beyond and realized I couldn't escape from the inevitable.