Photography Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
I’ve always been cognizant I lived in a separate and not necessarily equal world. My whole upbringing was black. All my friends were black. All my teachers were black. Everything that I’ve gone through informs me and my opinions in a way, I guess, because I am a child of segregation. I lived through it. I lived in it. I was of it.
The first national news that affected me, I was in high school somebody came in and whispered in the band director’s ear. And he told us, you know, that President Kennedy had been assassinated. And then we get home and my grandfather had all the guns out. My whole neighbourhood was primed for a race war. They just knew if Kennedy’s dead, oh lord, it’s about to jump off. You know, ’cause at everybody’s house there was King, Kennedy and Jesus, the pictures on the wall. That was– that was triumvirate.
Education was valued in my household. I started reading somewhere between three and a half and four years old. So, when I went to school they understood what the expectations were in my house of me. When other kids were diagramming sentences I was reading Shakespeare or Beowulf or whatever. When I started to read I started to realize the world was a lot bigger place than Chattanooga, Tennessee.
I’d been walking 4 1/2 to 5 miles to school every day. From house to house we picked each other up. And we walked. They weren’t training us to go to Yale or Harvard or whatever. They were training us to go to Tennessee State, or, you know, hopefully FISK or maybe Morehouse.
I had applied to UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, University of Hawaii, all these exotic schools that my mom didn’t know anything about. I was getting accepted and she finally realized that I was doing that and she said, “You must be out of your mind.” She pretty much, you know, grabbed me by the collar and took me to Morehouse and said, “This is where you’re going to school.”
My junior year I took this public speaking course. The guy offered us extra credit if we do Threepenny Opera. I didn’t realize the play took place in a whorehouse. These girls are in corsets and garter belts and, hey now! I’ve discovered my future.
But you want to talk about me being a role model don’t talk about my characters. Talk about me. I’m a good father, husband, son. Have never been arrested or gone to jail. That’s not a rite of passage for every black person. I have never been in jail. I’ve been questioned by the police, yeah. Been run out of town by the FBI, yes. I don’t advertise all the things I do. I don’t take a camera crew with me to Africa to show them that I actually, you know, have dug a well. I dug a well.
I have an education. I believe in education. I read, write, I conjugate.