Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Transcending Leadership

BOND: Let me ask you about race consciousness. Does race consciousness affect the work you do? Do you see yourself as a leader advancing issues of race or issues of the larger society or both? Is there a difference between these things and is there such a thing as a race transcending leader, someone who transcends race?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think that there is such a thing as a race transcending leader. I think in a lot of ways, you know, I am a race transcending leader. I think that there're other leaders that would come to mind who are race-transcending leaders. A great example in the media would be Oprah. I mean, she's a super leader of the world, empress of the world. She's beyond race, but at the same time is conscious of her identity. One of the reasons why I feel — I take such strong exception to it and it bothers me so much is because I do feel that I do have a role as an African American leader.

BOND: Now, when you're dealing with groups that are all black, that are mixed-race, or all white, do you have a different style for each of these?

WILLIAMS: No. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I don't. No. I really don't. I mean, I —

BOND: Some of our research says that when you're speaking to black groups or mixed groups, that you use more self-deprecating jokes.

WILLIAMS: I wouldn't say that. I think people who know me — I make jokes all the time. I would say I make the same kind of self-deprecating jokes wherever I go. Maybe I make more self-deprecating jokes. I wouldn't —

BOND: We haven't charted them.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I might make more because I am more self-conscious of my reception, you know?

BOND: Now, if we focus on the idea of black leadership, is this inherently divisive?

WILLIAMS: What do you mean?

BOND: Well, if you focus on just the idea of black leadership, there's a category of people called black leaders. Does this focus create divisiveness? Is it inherently divisive? Are we saying that we're accepting sort of permanent divisions among us, or at least divisions right now that "Here're the black people, here're the white people. This person is the leader of these people but can't be the leader of those," or these people can't be led by the same person?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, just in my job here, I think you're always going to have black leaders so, for example, I go to the Greek Festival and they've got the Greek leaders. We go to Italian events, they've got Italian leaders. So you're always going to have cultural leaders regardless of how things turn out politically or economically. But right now I think there is a need for political economic leadership because of the situation we're in.

BOND: But you know, I think in society today we tend to think about racial issues in a very different way than these cultural issues. For example, you think about people criticizing Kwanzaa, the celebration. Kwanzaa as the black celebration as opposed to, say, Christmas, but I never hear these same kind of criticisms about St. Patrick Day as being exclusively Irish. Of course, it's not. You know, you see people wearing buttons say "Kiss Me, I'm Irish," and you know they're not, but I think we tend to believe that when race is mentioned, it is inherently divisive, that even to mention it is a divisive thing.

WILLIAMS: Well, it depends on how — I mean, it depends on how race is mentioned. See, if race is mentioned just in the lexicon of music, let's say, or art, it's hugely pervasive throughout the world in real time, so like if you talk to those kids — I was watching this show with these kids in France, who were rioting — they were all totally versed, even though they're speaking French, they're totally versed in gangsta rap and hip hop and all this — which I hate — but they're totally into all that because it's all being communicated. It's not being communicated officially as black culture. It's just communicated and it's adopted and accommodated and everything else. Whereas if you say Kwanza, part of the reason why it takes on this special meaning or there're these special issues, it's because it's not — it doesn't — it isn't seen as coming out of the culture in a kind of organic, I don't know, way. It's kind of seen as coming up in a more arbitrary way. I'm not saying that's neither here nor there, but it's just how I would read that, you know what I'm saying?

BOND: It does seem to be a bit more artificial or made up.


BOND: But nonetheless, many, many people —