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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Although we can't know, and we do not want to engage in psycho-babble here – it is easy to imagine that you might have gone in an opposite direction and said, "Gee, my father worked at this job and it killed him." Although that's not precisely what happened. "My mother is traveling all the time when I am a young kid and my uncle, whom I admire, is a distant figure. All of them do this kind of stuff. I'm not going to do it." What – ?
WILKINS: Well, two things happened – three things. Jack Roosevelt Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947, the first acknowledged black person to be in modern major league baseball. And I was fifteen and Jack just captured my imagination. And in my fifteen-year-old's view and my sixty-nine-year-old view there was – everything was right with Jack in '47 and in subsequent years, and he was a wonderful ball player. He was brave. He had internal fortitude and stood up to all kinds of viciousness and played brilliant baseball. He never forgot that he was a black person. He always pushed back when people were trying to encroach on either his own interior space or black race generally. He was physically beautiful, and he was black – black and physically beautiful, rejecting the idea that black is ugly. And the whole country was looking at him. So, I think that if there had been any wavering in my soul, Jack certainly helped drive it out. And then, of course, there was the Brown decision, which I guess was in some way like winning World War II.
BOND: But before Brown and even before Jackie Robinson, your family has moved to Grand Rapids. And rather than living in a black enclave as in Kansas City or in the middle of the biggest collection of black people in the country, as in Harlem, now you find yourself living in a white neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by whites and going to a school where you are the only black kid. What is that like?
WILKINS: Hell. It was psychic hell, because it was – you know, I went there when I was twelve. Five years between twelve and seventeen are pretty crucial years. And you're all mush, you're plastic, and the world just – and you're bumping up against a whole bunch of other people who are plastic – and the world, the culture is telling you who you are. Well, what does a culture tell a black kid he is in 1944, '45, '46? That's one of the reasons I guess I love Jack so, because he came along when I was – when I needed a psychic jolt. But it was horrible. The culture makes black people ashamed of themselves, I was ashamed of myself. I wanted to be one of the guys. Well, I wasn't one of the guys. I was non-standard. And then, you know, when the hormones kick in and you start falling in love every seven minutes. Well, you know – well, maybe some people do, but I did not fall in love with the appropriate color-coded girl across town. I fell in love with the girl – I'm in my locker, here, you know, I was fishing around for my books, and all of a sudden, there is a girl next to me and she is stretching for something, and you see her budding form and you see the little hairs – [gasp] – and you know, it was, "You can't touch. Don't even come close. Don't even think about it." And then, you know, there were – even though I ultimately developed – at first nobody would talk to me, and they would spit on my bike seat and all that stuff, and then they would call me "nigger" and they would chase me home. It was really quite ugly. But after a while, I formed a group of friends, one of whom is still a friend of mine. He is a retired judge. We walked to school together every day. His parents have died, and he treats my mother as if she is his mother. And he calls her "my second mother." And when he takes her out to lunch around town about once every two weeks, and people will stop by the table and say, "Hi Don" or "Hi Judge." And he will say, "I want you to meet Helen Claytor (ph.), she is my second mother." But even then, when I had a group of friends, there – it would split on social lines. They'd have hay rides, I didn't go. So, I would say that psychically, it was just painful as it could be. But it taught me the most valuable lesson of my life, which was that all of this stuff about the white super race was baloney, that white people were just people, and some of them were smarter than I was, and a lot of them were dumber than I was. And some of them were better athletes, and some of them worse athletes and so forth. And I think that my ability in later life to go into major American institutions and to effect change was a combination of imitating my mother's style unconsciously and that ease with white people that very few blacks have the opportunity – at least of our generation – had the opportunity to acquire.