Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Racial Identity

BOND: You anticipate – you write, "Grand Rapids is a place where I would become more Midwestern than Harlemite, more American than black, and more complex than was comfortable or necessary." Is that what you are describing?


BOND: This personal transition that Grand Rapids puts into you, or the circumstances Grand Rapids puts into you?

WILKINS: Yeah, and I go back now, and I see it as – having lived all my adult life on the East Coast – I see it as, you know, hopelessly Midwestern. And I look at my Midwestern roots and think how far psychically I've traveled, although I still love the University of Michigan football team and I still wear a Creston High School t-shirt around in the summertime.

BOND: But you also write that when you're in school in Grand Rapids and you're student council president, recognized by your peers as a leadership figure, a model student, a leader. But deep down, as you write, "I guess I was also trying to demonstrate that I was not like those other people, that I was different. My message was quite clear: I was not nigger."


BOND: So, describe the feeling that you have to demonstrate you are not like this despised other group of people, that you are different from and better than they.

WILKINS: Well, you don't simply get the concept of shiftless nigger only from white people, although the culture surely was full of that. But there was a – as you know – a very sharp class consciousness among blacks, and although my parents [and] none of the adults around whom I grew up expressed those views, there was plenty among other black people. And of course, you knew – you knew and you saw poor black people, just up from the South, who didn't behave in a way that was acceptable to white culture, and I didn't want to be – I just didn't want to be like that. And I didn't want people to think I was like that – that I was different. I could – well, the old folks used to have a saying, old black folks, they'd say, "Oh, you know, he is just up from the country, he doesn't know how to do." I wanted people to know that I knew how to do.

BOND: Now if you didn't know "how to do," how was that? Did that effect you personally? Or did you have a consciousness that this was a group thing, that you somehow represented a larger group, and that you had "to do" in order to demonstrate that the larger group was okay, too?

WILKINS: Well, as a teenager, I was much more concerned with my own personal development than –

BOND: Sure.

WILKINS: – I was in being a member of the group. Although I surely had a race consciousness because I did go to NAACP meetings in Grand Rapids when I was a teenager. And so, I always felt that I had an obligation to the group. But I also wanted to be –

BOND: Separate from the group.

WILKINS: I wanted my own personal exemption. But I think that, you know, as I look back, I think that is not very different from a lot of what was going on in the heads of a lot of people in the NAACP when they sought desegregation. Because I think a lot of them felt, "Well, if the white folks can only see us and so how we can use our forks and we speak standard English and we use deodorant, that they would find out that there is no difference." Now, just as the founding fathers when they said to the British lords, "All men were created equal," they were not talking about the slaves, and they were not talking about landless white people. They were talking about us dealing with you. And I think a lot of middle-class black people who were seeking desegregation in the same way, they were looking up and saying, "Me too, not them." And I have to admit, as a young person trying desperately to find my place in the world that I had some of that.

BOND: A sense of separation between yourself and this class of people –

WILKINS: Right. Right.

BOND: – uneducated, unskilled, unlettered, not dressed properly.