Willmore Class Dinner Talk 2009


by Ron Wilmore

At last year’s Class Dinner, as I listened to Steve Clark share some of his most personal information with us and knowing what a powerful impact his sharing was having on me, I began to look around the room and realize that my classmates and I were beginning to near the twilight years of our abilities to impact positively on the lives of my fellow black Americans. This reality troubled me greatly. Then, however, I fought that sinking feeling of time is running out with the awareness that my classmates’ children such as those of Mel, Herb, Stan, and Burt to name a few of you were now in place to take over from their parents to continue to make America a place where blacks would someday be able to compete on a more level playing field. The more I thought about this, the more I felt the urgency to talk to you about what I perceive as the struggle for black Americans to achieve full status as long time citizens of this great country. So on the advice of Carter, I approached Bob Leich to ask if I could be this year’s speaker even though speakers for the next two years had been lined up. Due to my numerous health issues, I worried about waiting until 2008 to share my concerns and ideas with you. To his credit, Bob was able to arrange it so that I could be standing here tonight to dialogue with you. I thank him for making this opportunity to speak to you possible.

Needless to say, I have put a great deal of thought into what I want to say to you. Based on my 63 years of experience being black in America, I truly believe that most of my Yale classmates do not  understand how difficult it is to be black in this country. I also have grown to believe that the history of black oppression in this country is not a priority in the daily thinking of my classmates and certainly not in the thinking of the overwhelming majority of non-black people. My people have been ignored, stereotyped, and made, as Ralph Ellison so eloquently stated in his powerful novel, Invisible Man, invisible because America is far too nervous and ashamed to face up to what it has done to black people for almost 400 years – to be exact 387 years from 1619 to 2006. On the other hand, my people have not been able to ignore white America because their very existence depended on knowing as much about those in power as they possibly could. One of the advantages of being in power is that one does not have to spend time understanding the powerless as long as they fear or respect the powerful. Therefore, operating on the premise that there is most likely an information deficit on the part of my powerful Yale classmates and my less powerful black brothers and sisters, I am here tonight to share some thoughts about the history of black oppression in America and what it is like to grow up under that reality and survive as a reasonably functioning people.

Tonight I will talk about three time periods. The first time period will be the first 335 years of blacks in America from 1619 to the middle of the twentieth century which is approximately 19 generations of indentured servitude, slavery, and segregation. The second time period will be the approximately two and a half generations of opportunity that followed legal segregation, starting with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which declared public school segregation unconstitutional, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made public accommodations for minorities more accessible, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which made voting rights more accessible for minorities. And the third time period of discussion will be how race consciousness impacted on my life both positively and negatively and how it shaped me into the person I am today.

Let me say at this point to please feel free to ask questions at any time during my presentation. All questions will be answered as honestly as I possibly can.

All of us have read about slavery in our many years of formal education and in our equally valuable informal education. Until I got to Yale, however, I had no clue how brutal and inhumane American slavery really was, but thanks to my two senior seminars in my American Studies major, Negroes in America and The United States Supreme Court, I began my discovery of the viciousness of slavery, and over the years since Yale, I have learned even more and more about how horrible it was through mine and Sandy’s extensive reading on the subject. Starting with the humiliating capture in Africa, then the hundreds of miles of marching to the west coast where they were then forced onto ships and stacked on their backs row upon row to maximize the amount of space on the ships. During this so-called Middle Passage, they often had no opportunity to stand and stretch their limbs for weeks and sometimes several months at a time and where the slave ship investors considered it a financial success if only fifty percent of the Africans died on the trip. Historians estimate that up to 10 million African men, women, and children died during the Middle Passage from diseases, from murder, and from suicide. Then there was the breaking in period when the ships landed, especially in the West Indies where members from different tribes were mixed together on purpose so that they could not speak a common language and plot to escape and where every method known to man was utilized to break the spirits of the slaves so that they would become like children and not have the emotional strength to rebel against those who owned them. Total subservience to the master was the goal of the breaking of the slave’s spirit. This was true even for the slaves who were born in the states. Out of slavery came the creation of a different way to speak English since the slaves had to learn English the best way they could because the teaching of reading and writing was against the law in almost all jurisdictions. I call this different English “Black English” which is widely spoken even today, but that is another topic that I will not discuss tonight, suffice it to say that I have spent most of my adult life explaining why “Black English” exists.

For almost three centuries the slaves had to figure out a way to survive this system which most historians have ranked as the most inhumane slavery system in history due to the fact that the slaves were not considered equally human; even the original Constitution classified them as representing three fifths of a person. One misconception of slavery was that it only occurred in the South, but in reality slavery existed at some time in every colony and original state of this country. Some of our Ivy League schools have recently acknowledged that slave labor was used to construct some of their original buildings. At least one of our Yale residential colleges is named after a slave owner. As I just said, in almost every locale, it was against the law to teach a slave to read or write; slaves could not legally marry; parents could not legally protect their children; slaves who were allowed non-legal marriages could not protect their spouses; slaves could be whipped and/or severely punished within the laws of most locales; slaves could not legally own property; freed slaves and their children always faced the possibility of being sold back into slavery; slaves daily faced the possibility of being sold away from their families and friends; slaves were provided with the absolute minimum of food and clothing, just enough to assure that they were able to work from sun up to sun down; slaves, especially the women, had no protection from sexual abuse from their owners and even from some of their overseers. There are so many other horrible situations to mention, but let me end this list of abuses by mentioning that the courts almost unanimously sided with whites against all blacks slave or freed, and in the infamous Dred Scott case in 1857, the Supreme Court ruled “that no black man had any rights that a white man is to respect.”

Given this closed and cruel society where slaves did not own their lives or their labor, what did slaves do to survive on a day by day basis? Both conscious and subconscious methods were utilized over the centuries. One of the most prevalent methods of survival was the development of childlike behavior. This behavior pleased those in power, for they tended to fear the blacks less since children are suppose to obey adults, but it also gave a small amount of protection to the slaves and freedmen because childlike behavior could mask how the slaves and freedmen truly felt about their condition and reduce some of the negative responses of those in power as the slaves made expected childish mistakes which could reduce the actual time spent in backbreaking labor.

A correlation to childlike behavior was the stereotype of the stupid, lazy, or clumsy slave. This belief allowed the slaves to take much longer time to follow verbal work directions; it allowed them to break farm equipment and injure mules and other farm animals used to grow crops; and it allowed them to take a longer time to complete a task for after all they were considered stupid, lazy, and clumsy. The more this stereotype grew, the more the blacks were able to reduce life draining labor for which they received no compensation whatsoever. Without compensation, the only goal became survival. And survive they did from 1619 to the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished legal slavery. This is a truly remarkable story of survival. Stanley Elkins, an important American historian, found many similarities between the Nazi concentration camps and American slavery and how they both did such negative altering of the psychological and emotional well-being of the concentration camp inmates and the slaves during their enslavements and long afterwards.

Unfortunately the end of legal slavery did not end the suffering of black Americans, for in its place came the black codes and soon after them de jure segregation which separated blacks from whites in all southern states in almost all aspects of life and de facto segregation in many other non-southern states. This segregation, formal and informal, came about despite the 14th and 15th Amendments which were supposedly adopted to help the former slaves become full citizens and help them obtain voting rights. In the infamous Plessey versus Ferguson case, the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of Separate But Equal would be the law of the land. However, as demeaning as it was to be legally separated from white people, the equal part of the doctrine was seldom if ever applied. Across the board black segregated schools, parks, hospitals, cemeteries, etc. received much less funding from the state and local governments. Thus the doctrine became known to blacks as Separate But Unequal.

My wife, Sandy, attended segregated schools in Anniston, Alabama where it was common for her and her classmates to be issued damaged and out of date books that had once been new in the white schools. Her black teachers for many years were paid less than their fellow white teachers. And in many black schools, twelve grades were not the norm, but they were in the white schools.

Even our own beloved Yale was not immune from race conscious behavior. For most of its 305 years it refused to admit black students. Not until 1969 did it allow itself to admit a fair number of black students. As you may or may not remember, Yale admitted only four black American students into our Class of 1965: Danny Parker, Charles Marshall, Harry Huggins, and me, two from New Haven and two from Washington, D.C. – four out of a class of 1,025 freshmen.

Segregation, both legal and in fact, was a conscious effort to cripple black Americans economically, politically, and emotionally. It amazes me to this day that over these hundreds of years my fellow black people were able to withstand the onslaught of racism and emerge willing to take on the challenges of opportunity that began to come with the Brown versus the Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Thus blacks have had only two and a half generations of true opportunity versus nineteen generations of terrible oppression. Simply stated, there has not been enough time to repair the damage that was done over three centuries. And just as there is the known condition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder associated with having served in military combat, there is growing evidence of a new mental illness for black Americans being called Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder, which is affecting millions of black people today. This has come about because there has never been a professional nationwide effort to deal with the psychological damage done to the slaves and their future offspring. Thus generation after generation has passed down to the next generation this pattern of living and coping now being called Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder. Nevertheless, remarkable achievements have been made by my people despite this Disorder, BUT much more healing has to take place. And this is why I have asked to speak to you tonight. You and your children are in positions of power or your children will be, and you and they can help see to it that black people in yours and their lifetimes get a fair chance to take part in the process of attaining the American Dream.

The large question is – “Can this attainment by my people of the American Dream be accomplished without some kind of help other than their own efforts?” I truly believe that despite our best efforts racism has put most black Americans at a distinct disadvantage. And to now ask them to compete on an equal basis when the playing field is far from level is a real injustice. To use the running of a race as an analogy, it is equivalent to denying the black runner training facilities and then all of a sudden giving him or her the opportunity to take part in a race against runners who have had access to the finest training facilities available and then insisting that the black runner start from the same starting point, after all is not that true equality? In almost every case, the black runner has no chance of competing fairly in that race. The same analogy could be used in all competitive endeavors. The lack of so called “equal training opportunities” for almost four centuries puts black people at a distinct disadvantage in almost every field with the two possible exceptions of athletics and music where blacks have been allowed more opportunities and have added greatly to the quality of American life.

I say to those who are today opposed to affirmative action which seeks to help deserving blacks that they do not know the true history of their country. For if they truly opened their eyes to that history, they would see that for nearly four hundred years there has been affirmative action; however, it has been affirmative action for white Americans only. When a system has been set up to give preferences to some for whatever reasons and does not give those same preferences to others, that is a form of affirmative action. Yet when black Americans ask for preferences to offset centuries of discrimination, there are those who claim this to be reversed discrimination. Why was this claim not raised when white Americans were receiving preferences over non-white and Jewish Americans year after year after year? The answer to me is crystal clear.

Unfortunately there are some blacks who also criticize affirmative action for varied reasons. I have just completed reading a book by a black conservative writer who does not support affirmative action because he believes that in America today talented blacks do not need preferential treatment. I say that these blacks for the most part are to the best of their abilities fleeing from their past because it is too painful to deal with on a day to day basis. In other words, they are escaping from reality or were born after the civil rights revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The best example of this type of black person who denies reality is Clarence Thomas. My mother, when she was alive, taught me to never hate anybody; therefore she would have been disappointed in the hatred I have towards Clarence Thomas. Every single advance he has ever made in his life from high school, to college at Holy Cross, to Yale Law School, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to his first job on Capitol Hill, to his appointment to the United States Court of Appeals, and finally to his appointment to the United States Supreme Court has been made possible because of affirmative action. And for him to now publicly oppose affirmative action is the epitome of hypocrisy and indicates some kind of very deep seated aversion to his being black in America. The real tragedy is that his opposition to affirmative action gives ammunition to those who also oppose it. The reasoning can be “Well, if a black Supreme Court Justice opposes affirmation then there has to be something unfair about it”. In the overwhelming majority of the black community today, his appointment to the Supreme Court ranks as one of the saddest moments in our nation’s history. And the great irony is that this very disappointing legal lightweight is the successor to our beloved Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Let me now segue to how race consciousness has played a role in my life, both positively and negatively. And let me preface this concluding part of my talk by saying that I am one of the lucky blacks in America, who for the most part has benefited from America’s race consciousness. My first awareness of race came when I lived in a black section of New Haven on Gregory Street. This section was just a block away from the Yale campus. I remember asking my father why all the people at Yale were white and all the people on my street and in my neighborhood were black with the exception of one family, the Ginsbergs. He told me that unfortunately black people were not usually welcome in white universities or neighborhoods. Then I moved to a new public housing community on the outskirts of New Haven, known as Brookside Apartments which at its beginnings was a truly integrated public housing complex. I spent the next eight years of my life surrounded by people black and white of many different ethnicities. Some of my closest white friendships were formed at Brookside Apartments, and to this day they still exist. Race consciousness was almost non existent during this period of my life until near the end of that stage when dating became an issue. I still remember the first time I was not invited to a party to which all of my white friends had been invited. I was deeply hurt by being excluded, but from that day onward I knew that there was going to be a color line that would be potentially stressful whenever I crossed it, and I prepared myself to deal with that newly discovered fact.

Near the end of my sixth grade year, I was approached by my teacher, Mrs. Clark, and told that for the next year she had recommended me to a fairly new tutoring program run by Yale University undergraduates to prepare a small group of about eight black students a year to enter the top prep schools in Connecticut, among them Taft, Hotchkiss, and Mount Herman. The name of the program was the Ulysses S. Grant Scholarship Foundation which still exists today on a much larger scale, I am happy to report. This was my first positive experience with race consciousness, and it set me on a path of academic excellence that very few blacks at the time had the opportunity to pursue. A year later I was again the recipient of positive race consciousness when I was chosen to be the one black male student placed in an accelerated academic class at my junior high school. The one black female was Gwendolyn Williams with whom I still communicate to this day. Two years later my good fortune continued when I was asked to apply for admission to Hopkins Grammar School, one of the top country day schools in the nation, and I was accepted. I became one of only four blacks in the entire school, a fact that should have annoyed me, but at that time in my life I was not mature enough to see how unfair four black  students out of 350 white students was. Overall, my three years at Hopkins were wonderful and rewarding as I felt accepted as an equal among my peers. However, my headmaster who truly cared about me was unable to control his negative race consciousness which resulted in two very egregious moments in my Hopkins career. The first happened in 1960, my junior year, when the school was celebrating its 300th year of existence. One night before a student assembly, the headmaster called me at home to ask me if he could use me and two classmates who were tackles on the football team as modern day examples of the bequest of the founder of Hopkins Grammar School, Edward Hopkins who donated one Negro servant and 430 British pounds to start the school. I was to be compared to the Negro servant, and my two classmates, Steve Ross and Tom Scaramella, were to be compared to the 430 British pounds. He thought that such a comparison would be amusing. I had my doubts and I shared them with my mother, but at age sixteen I did not feel that I could tell my headmaster that his planned attempt at humor was in poor taste. So the next day in the assembly, he began his talk, and when he came to the part where he was going to make the present day comparison, instead of Negro servant he said “nigger slave”. Well you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium, and my first reaction was to make eye contact with the other three black students in the room. But this proved to be impossible for all three of them had dropped their heads into there hands in shame. And my headmaster never realized what he had said that day until about ten years later when I finally confronted him on it. One of the three other black students was Johnny Huggins, the son of John Huggins, who some of you remember as the permittee who ran the Fence Club and his mother, Libby, who worked at Sterling Library. I truly believe that Johnny never fully recovered from that moment, for he later decided the next year to transfer to Hillhouse High School where he did not finish, then joined the navy rather than go to college, and then joined the Black Panther Party where he rose up in the ranks of the Party until he was gunned down by a rival group known as US after giving a speech at UCLA. Years later it was discovered that the FBI had played a role in exacerbating the rivalry between the Black Panthers and US that led to Johnny’s assassination.

The second sad moment at Hopkins of negative race conscious ignorance occurred in my senior year. Two of my four fellow black students were in the glee club, and a concert had been arranged with one of the sister boarding schools. It was customary for the concert to be preceded by a dinner with each member of the glee club being paired with a young lady from the guest school. Well, my headmaster received a call from the sister school saying that no young lady was willing to be paired with Johnny Huggins or Carl Johnson. Instead of canceling the concert immediately, he called Johnny and Carl into his office and asked them what should he do. Of course they did not have the maturity at their ages to tell him to cancel the concert, so he decided to let the concert take place and have Johnny and Carl eat in the kitchen. I was working in the kitchen that night to earn some spending money, and I will never forget how Johnny and Carl cried throughout most of their meal. To this day, I still do not know how they had the strength to then sing in the concert that followed. Needless to say the black students at Hopkins did not come through their years there without some deep seated scars on their psyches. But somehow my scars did not have the same negative intensity as those of Johnny and Carl for all kinds of reasons, one major reason being the love I continuously received from my parents, and on the whole, my years at Hopkins were very rewarding thanks to my classmates and most of my teachers. Race consciousness during my first 18 years of life had proven to be for the most part advantageous to my development.

And then there was my Yale experience. I am convinced that race consciousness played a role in my getting into Yale. There were four significant reasons for me to be worthy of getting admitted to Yale. One was being from New Haven; a second was going to Hopkins Grammar School; a third was being an All-American high school football player at running back who, by the way, still holds the Connecticut record for seven two point conversions in a single game; and finally, I was a black American applicant. The fact that I was only one of four black Americans admitted to the Yale Class of 1965 makes me firmly believe that affirmative action was greatly responsible for me becoming a proud Yalie.

I will never forget during the first couple of days of freshman year looking in the freshman directory and being impressed that there were four black Americans. I should have been outraged, but before the freshman year was over the four of us had let President Griswold know that it was unfair for Yale to admit so few black Americans. And to Yale’s credit, the numbers began a slow and steady increase. The Class of 1966 had seven; the Class of 1967 had twelve; the Class of 1968 had 33; and finally the Class of 1969 admitted a fair representation of blacks in America. Yale had finally come to grips with the abundant numbers of qualified blacks in this country, and to this day I am proud of Yale’s outreach to blacks and other minorities, women, and foreign students who as a group now make up over 33% of admitted Yalies. Yale is a much richer educational experience than when we were there because of the diversity of the student population.

My four years at Yale were four of the best years of my pre-Sandy life. My classes were intellectually stimulating and challenging; my athletic career was disappointing but made me a wiser person; and my friendships formed at Yale have been priceless. My life is so much more complete because of friends like Mel, Herb, Peter, Stan, Marne, Barrington, Burt, Steve, Jonathan, and my late friends Carter, Harry, Woody, and Orde. And there are many others of you not mentioned in this talk who also made my Yale experience so rich and wonderful. But even as rich and wonderful as those four years were, race consciousness was always lurking around the corner. Did it have something to do with my football playing frustrations? Maybe. Did it help me become only the second black fraternity brother at DKE in the entire DKE network? Yes. Did it help me become a lifelong friend of the fourteen other members of my senior society, Sisyphus? Yes. Was I daily aware that I and my fellow blacks of 1965 were less than .004% of the Class? Yes. And I will never forget the day when one of my classmates and good friend, who has since died, made a joke about the assassination of one of my heroes, Malcolm X, the day that Malcolm died. He had no clue how hurtful he was being to me. As benign and even as helpful as race consciousness was during those four years at Yale, it still took away a significant amount of my energy – energy that could have been better directed towards maximizing my Yale career.

All in all, however, I would have to rank my Yale experience as one of the major positive race conscious experiences in my life.

Before I go on to briefly describe how race consciousness has affected the last 40 years of my life after Yale, let me say that I and all other blacks had to grow up in a society where legal and de facto segregation were the norm. In our segregated communities in the South and in the North there were very few black doctors, lawyers, business leaders, bus drivers, salespersons in stores, police, and in many other jobs. There were no black major league baseball players until Jackie Robinson came along. The same was true in professional football and basketball and many major college sports. There were no black models in advertising, and no black radio and television shows except the insulting Amos and Andy Show, and almost no black movie stars. Growing up in this white world of communication and sports and so very few role models in the professions invariably brain washed millions and millions of blacks, including me, into believing that somehow we were inferior to whites, which of course was the goal of this racial oppression.

In the first third of my life how did this racial inferiority complex express itself? One of the most debilitating expressions was the belief in the limited future options of blacks which resulted in us not pursuing certain careers because of the presence of entry level discrimination and of the glass and mirror ceilings beyond which you could not hope to advance. To this day I joke with Herb, Mel, and Stan about what the hell does an investment banker do. Investment bankers were not a part of my pool of role models when I was growing up as it was for many of you.

Another subtle but insidious expression of blacks having an inferiority complex is how over 95% of black women in America hate their hair so much that they regularly add heat and chemicals to their hair to made their hair more like the hair of non-black women. Many a Saturday late afternoon  growing up in New Haven did I spend in my kitchen watching my sisters and nieces applying the hot comb and hair grease to their hair to “straighten it”, often times burning their scalps in the process. Why, because they said that they wanted “good hair”. This had to mean that subconsciously they thought their natural hair was “bad hair”. What kind of inferior complex causes so many black women to put themselves through such self destroying behavior? I am extremely proud of the fact that Sandy stopped mistreating her hair and embraced her naturally curly hair  way back in 1967 when we first met in New York City and has worn her hair naturally curly ever since. She has been a truly proud black woman ever since. It is no accident that most of the brightest and accomplished black women that I have ever known wear their hair in its natural state including two former members of our own Yale Corporation, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ruby Hearn. Being comfortable with their natural, black beauty indicates an inner strength that invariably helps them succeed in all facets of life and be able to compete with people of all races.

There are many other examples of how race consciousness daily impacts black Americans and usually in a negative way, but time does not permit me to discuss those tonight. Reacting to negative race consciousness certainly takes away from one’s total utilization of his or her full potential. And this brings me to why I wanted to talk to you tonight and share these personal insights with you. Simply stated, the playing field is far from level. Yet I am pleased to acknowledge that significant improvements in opportunities for black middleclass Americans have occurred since the 1960’s. And more and more blacks of all classes are being asked by black spokespersons to rethink their negative and self-destructing response to the lessening racism that unfortunately still exists in America and to re-energize their individual roles in maximizing the opportunities that are now available. However, people of influence and power like you and your children still need to lend a helping hand well into the foreseeable future, whether it be as a mentor, as a major financial contributor like Herb, Mel, and Stan to black organizations, especially community based organizations like my Northwest Settlement House, as a board member of such organizations, like John Pinney, Ward Barmon, and Stan Trotman, who are on my board at Northwest Settlement House, and equally important, as a spokesperson for the creation of a truly honest discussion of how race consciousness has affected black Americans for almost 400 years and continues to do so today. A true level playing field will hopefully someday exist only if people like you in this room and your children insist that it happens.

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts with you tonight.