My Truth: My Journey Toward Servant Leadership
By the time I was 8 years old, Dad and I often engaged in conversations about politics and social inequality. Dad seemed to take quiet pride in our spirited one-to-one political conversations. I loved the opportunity to test my ideas – no matter how flawed –– in healthy debate. I still do.
Once I had the temerity to challenge his political judgment; Dad supported Boston’s Mayor James M. Curley, a Democratic political icon in the first half of the 20th century, who served part of his fourth term as mayor in prison for mail fraud.
Dad’s reply to Mayor Curley’s shortcomings was to ask me, rhetorically, who built the playground that my friends and I enjoyed so much. Curley had, and Dad’s question brought the emerging political reform movement in the Johnson household to a swift and decisive end. In discussions like that, I learned at an early age a lesson that, even today, many budding politicians don’t seem to appreciate: all politics is local.
Dad might laugh at my point, but he never laughed at me. He never put me down. He always respected my point of view.
Contrast these conversations with my father, with the imperative of “The Talk” that today’s Black parents must have with their Black children. “The Talk” is a conversation about how to handle encounters with the police: Keep your hands in sight; don’t move quickly; don’t argue with the police. How come white parents don’t have to give “The Talk” to their white kids? Answer: Res ipsa loquitor or “the thing speaks for itself.”
EXERCISING THE RIGHT TO VOTE
I don’t think Dad ever missed voting in an election. His distinction between political parties was simple: Democrats favored the working man; Republicans favored the rich. If the truth be told, faced with the choice, his distinction was so clear that I think he would have voted for a yellow dog, if it was a Democrat, rather than vote for a Republican.
He’d be devastated to know that in 1955 in Brooklyn, New York, his son, a recent college graduate, was required by a registration clerk, a middle-aged white woman with a blue bouffant hairdo, to take a literacy test simply because I couldn’t produce my junior high school diploma. She wasn’t impressed by my class ring, dismissively saying, “Anyone could get one of those.”
I had to stoop to conquer. The test was given at a location two bus rides away from the voter registration office. Undeterred, I did so and passed a literacy test that could have easily been aced by a kindergarten dropout. Returning with my hard–earned literacy certificate in hand, the clerk, without a word, sullenly shoved my voter registration card toward me.
After my adventure with that literacy test, I later learned that that registration clerk’s requirement that I take the test was at her unfettered discretion. It was arbitrary and intended to discourage me from voting. After all, the increasing Black population in my Crown Heights neighborhood posed a threat to the existing white power structure. To this day, almost every time I vote, I am reminded of that middle-aged white woman with the blue bouffant hairdo. (As a not so gentle reminder, I keep my junior high school diploma stored in a secure location.)
My dad would be outraged by the situation today, in which the myth of voter fraud is actually a thinly–veiled effort to suppress the vote of Black people.
Voter suppression isn’t limited to the South or to the North, either. It’s a national problem. It’s as American as apple pie. Since the end of Reconstruction, the Black vote has been suppressed by lynching, economic and employment deprivation, and by countless seemingly benign actions – a literacy test – with a single objective, diminish the Black vote by whatever means necessary. These days, a favorite method of voter suppression is bound up in the myth of voter fraud and takes the form of, for example, Georgia’s Voter ID requirement.
During our conversations, Dad provided plenty of role models for me to respect, even venerate. He was an admirer of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, the “Lion of Judah,” who courageously stood up to the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, only to have the League of Nations in 1936 turn a deaf ear to his plea for support. Dad also admired the Black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant who advocated economic empowerment. Like Garvey, he repeatedly and emphatically referred to people of color as “Black,” never “Negro” or ”colored,” as was customary during those years.
Boston’s Blacks, relatively few in number, were politically powerless when I was growing up and, except for a few isolated success stories, were generally consigned to positions at the bottom of the economic ladder. We were only 2.7 percent of Boston’s overall population in the 1930s. Contrast those numbers with Boston’s Irish immigrants and their descendants who came to control civil service jobs, traditionally the gateway to financial security and the middle class, and elected offices.
As a Black kid in the Boston schools, I had no professional role models whatsoever. I had a single Black teacher – a substitute – for one day in my 12 years of public school in Boston. Most of my friends never saw a Black teacher – ever. Almost all of the cops who patrolled Roxbury were white and Irish.
I felt so oppressed by the Irish that I was hurt and angry when, in 1946, Boston’s new professional basketball team was named the Boston Celtics. Why couldn’t they call them the Patriots or Colonials, or anything else?
CULTURE AND EXPECTATIONS
Boston was a small town for Black people and its West Indian immigrants were a minority within that minority. We constituted less than 10 percent of the total number of Black people in Boston. It seemed as if every Black person knew every other Black person, if not by name, certainly by sight.
Sadly, many African–Americans, themselves oppressed, scapegoated the new West Indian immigrants by disparaging and mimicking their pronounced sing-song Patois accent.
West Indians were insular, believed in mutual support, in taking care of themselves. They created supportive institutions such as the Jamaican Associates, a mutual aid society, and our family church, St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church.
St. Cyprian’s was one of Boston’s first Black-built churches and became the center of our spiritual and social lives. With a host of youth-centered activities, such as its Drum & Bugle Corps and Men & Boys’ Choir, the church was our extended family.
Gene Wolcott became a good friend of mine through the choir, church school and high school. He was and is a gifted violinist. Shortly after I left Boston, at age 16, Gene joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Louis X; he is now the Honorable Louis Farrakhan. While we disagree on some issues, he remains a valued friend and our paths have occasionally crossed over the years.
Discipline was harsh in the West Indian family. The adage “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was the norm. The prevailing community values required unquestioned obedience and respect to elders, conformity, regular church attendance, education, hard work, and improvement of self and community. Home ownership was the gold standard and encouraged as a vehicle of economic independence.
The intimacy and the shared cultural backgrounds of the West Indian community entitled adults to “gossip” about others – and other’s children. One’s status as a parent in the community was determined by the accomplishments and conduct of the children in that family; misbehavior or disrespect had dire consequences for all concerned – shame, more negative gossip, and loss of respect for the parents of the errant child.
It was almost unheard of for the child of a West Indian immigrant to become involved in Boston’s criminal justice system.
Sad#y, my older brother, Calvin, was an exception to this cultural norm. In 1949, Calvin stabbed his ex-wife in a government office building in broad daylight. The highly–publicized incident had dire consequences for me and our family. Ma, by now divorced from Dad, was so embarrassed and ashamed by his criminal act that within weeks, with Eleanor in tow, she moved to Brooklyn, New York. I was left behind to live with Aunt Edith, to finish my senior year of high school.
Following graduation from high school, in June, 1949, I joined Ma and Eleanor in Brooklyn. My almost weekly visits with Dad were reduced to regular phone calls and my periodic visits to Boston. The change wasn’t the same as my summary transfer to the Prang School in 1937, but there were definite similarities. Ma had again moved me from familiar surroundings, taking me away from an important person in my life, with no apparent appreciation of its psychic impact upon me. All because of my older brother’s errant ways.
Despite the Great Depression’s astronomically high unemployment rate, particularly among Black people, Dad was steadily employed in Boston, although relegated to low-level positions. He had a janitorial job with the “El”, or the Elevated Railway, Boston’s mass transit system at the time. Lest there be any doubt that racism was responsible for his being mired in that dead-end job, consider that just before the outbreak of World War II, his co-workers, all white, thought it was a big joke when he mused about applying for a conductor’s position.
Years later, knowing how much my father wanted to be a conductor and that he would have been a good one, I was moved to tears by a national story about a Boston subway conductor whose heroism saved a child from certain death after the child fell on the subway tracks. The heroic conductor was a Black woman.
Reduced circumstances or not, Dad never missed a child support payment when he and my mother separated — I would have certainly heard about it if he had. He moved into a furnished room, and after he met his own personal needs, he always found enough money to provide me with a modest weekly allowance. He’d always slip a dollar or two in my hand as I left his room to return home.
Dad always kept a “stiff upper lip” in the way of Jamaicans and the British, never complaining or explaining while getting on with whatever needed to be done. When his mother died in 1948, Dad couldn’t return to Jamaica for her funeral. He couldn’t afford to do so, but kept it to himself. Years later, I learned that his brother, Uncle Bertie, resented that Dad had missed their mother’s funeral. Like many relatives overseas, Uncle Bertie incorrectly assumed that if you lived in America, then surely you had enough disposable income to at least attend your own mother’s funeral. Dad’s “stiff upper lip” had inadvertently contributed undue and perhaps avoidable tension with his younger brother.
Sadly, it wasn’t until after his death in 1973 at age 74, that I fully appreciated Dad’s impact upon me. He wasn’t a touchy-feely man – no hugs, kisses or “I love you.” Yet, I knew that, while he never said so directly, he showed his love and concern for me through his conversations, in that small allowance (which was doubtless a struggle), and in a hundred other less tangible ways. Dad’s emotion-free model cut both ways. I was proud of my father, but I didn’t hug, kiss or tell him so, either – until December, 1972.
In December 1972, he was admitted to Boston City Hospital for what we both knew would be his last time. His physician gave us a few private moments. It was unspoken, but we all knew that Dad would soon die.
Dad and I were alone and frightened. There was a loud silence. I could only chokingly say, “I love you, Daddy.” I hadn’t called him Daddy since my childhood. I didn’t want my Daddy to go. He did not respond. He just looked at me. He didn’t have to speak. We understood.
Daddy died on New Year’s Day 1973. It was a few days after a heavy snowfall, gloomy, and bitterly cold.
I learned that day that you could pick out a casket any day of the week.
TAGS: Voter suppression, Jamaican immigration, role models
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