Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Parental Teachings and Community Values

BOND: And this is pertinent to what you've just been talking about. In your own life, your personal life, who are the people who were most helpful to you in developing your talents and developing whom you are today? And I notice you've made a distinction between mentors and role models. Talk about that a bit.


RASPBERRY: Yeah. The smartest thing I did early on was to choose my parents very very wisely. I had two terrific parents. I've still got one of them. My mom, whom I saw four days ago, is a hundred years old and a lovely woman. She's still living in her own house. But she and my father, through I don't know what means, managed to acquire some child-rearing skills that were phenomenal. They didn't manage to acquire much money ever. They were both teachers, and there was -- we were never hungry or less than properly clothed, but the clothing was not always the good stuff that some of the kids were wearing. We didn't feel poor. What they did was -- because they loved learning so much themselves, we absorbed that. All five of us, we were forever reading things. My sister used to read in the shower, you know. I mean, it was -- and my own children have kept that habit going, which makes me appreciate the power of observation. But somehow they were able to instill in us, first, a love of learning.


They were able also -- in Okolona, Mississippi, segregated and awful for us -- they were able to make us feel that we were okay, valuable people, and the center of their lives. They were able to make us believe that no matter what happened around us and to us, we were to behave like Raspberry kids. I mean, that meant something in those days, you know? That other people's mistreatment of us did not relieve us of the responsibility of behaving decently in the world. They never quite said it that way. They would chide us for things, but more importantly, they modeled -- they modeled what they believed.


BOND: Where did they get this from?


RASPBERRY: I don't know where they got it.


BOND: Where did it come to them from?


RASPBERRY: I saw these attitudes reflected in both my maternal and paternal grandparents, especially the grandfathers. And I suppose some of it came from there. I'm sure if you asked them, they couldn't tell you where it came from, but -- I mean, this is the part of it that strikes me as powerful. When it happens and however happens, you can recognize its power and how it makes you feel, and it makes you want to pass it along, so once you get infected with this gene, whatever it is, it can, with a little help, replicate itself down the generations.


By the same token, if you get infected with an attitude that says nothing you do matters and that vengeance is a proper response, that getting even is more important than getting ahead, that's heritable, too. And I see kids -- I used to see kids on the playground who would fight because their parents had instructed them you don't take nothing off nobody and if anybody does anything to you, you hit them with a rock or you stab them with a pencil or you -- and they thought they were teaching their kids to take care of themselves because they loved their kids. So, what my own experience -- both at my house, and I do mean it when I say my parents were sort of incredible -- there's another thing about my early years, though, that's also extremely important, I think.


I was born on the campus of what was then Okolona College, a little two-year college with a four-year high school attached. It was a campus setting, dormitories, you know, the whole thing. That's where I was born. There's where my dad taught building trades. It was at that time the only four-year high school for blacks in Chickasaw County. But there was that little school, supported by the Episcopal church, that saw as its mission preparing young black kids to succeed in a hostile environment.


The people there -- I think I remember one Ph.D. the whole time the college existed. These were people who were not extraordinary scholars or particularly gifted teachers, but they were so committed to rescuing, saving a generation of us in the heat of segregation that they really did transform our lives. I'm talking about a surprising number of people who came through that little high school and college who went on to do well. And the presence of that little school helped to transform our town into what these days we would call a learning community, at least for the black half of the town. And we had some effect on the other, but I'm principally talking about what happened to black kids and black families in that town in those days. And it was really quite extraordinary in ways that I didn't realize until I left the place, and that experience of observing at first hand what a few committed people can do to lift the sights of people who didn't have much previous reason for lifting their eyes -- that's also part of what drives the Baby Steps effort.


I don't want to recreate the little college, it's no point in doing that. But I came to understand and to understand more every day as I look back, the importance of changing the culture, the cultural attitudes toward learning. Learning is in disrepute in some parts of our country. It's thought to be an effete kind of thing, and, you know, acting is more important than merely learning. And in our own little way, Baby Steps hopes to get people thinking about creating once again a learning community in our town.


We also hope to transform the town racially as well. The town is almost equally divided between black and white and we haven't figured out yet, except at the edges, how to live together. There's some people who want to do it, who are trying on both sides, but I think -- it occurred to me once again that we will argue about politics and religion and whether to put the park here or the school there. The one thing we're all agreed on is that we want our children to do well. I mean, it's the one -- you ask for a show of hands of those who are opposed to children and you don't get anybody waving their hands about. It's about the only thing I can think of where we're all agreed and waiting for somebody to give us something to do to act on that agreement.