BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Randall Robinson, author of "Defending the Spirit," what was it like when you fasted during your attempt at getting the president to do something about Haiti?
MR. RANDALL ROBINSON, AUTHOR, "DEFENDING THE SPIRIT: BLACK LIFE IN AMERICA" Conflicting emotions about it. It was a measure of last resort. I had appealed to the president on several occasions to
screen the refugees, to comply with international law, to try to discover those among them who were legitimate political refugees that we are obliged to provide safe haven to, and the president didn't
want to do that. And so we had to find a way to dramatize the plight of these people that were being plucked out of the ocean and returned to Haiti, many of them killed upon their return. And
the fast was really a desperate measure to draw attention to this. I had no confidence that it would work, and I also had a full understanding that it was not the kind of public measure from which one could retreat in the middle of it. And so I thought that it could end badly and I found that, in the middle of it, somewhat frightening.
LAMB: What year was this?
MR. ROBINSON: This was in '94.
LAMB: And where were you?
MR. ROBINSON: I was in the basement of TransAfrica.
LAMB: Where's that located?
MR. ROBINSON: That's on R Street near Dupont Circle—New Hampshire and R. And so it was in a concrete cell with gurgling overhead pipes, which became very difficult on the weekends because things slowed down and I had only my mind within which to talk and exchange. My wife spent a good deal of time there and my children. But for large blocks of time, I was alone and cut off, really, from the world and wondering if this was going to work. And then when I began to lose weight, I saw my extremities shrinking. I found that a bit frightening. And your blood thickens and you're supposed to drink 12 to 14 large glasses of fluid a day--water--to keep your fluids up. You forget how much fluid there is in food, and if you're not eating, you lose all of that. And Dick Gregory would come and counsel me and bring me literature on what to do. He even advised me on one occasion not to use deodorant because you
reintroduce toxins into your system. And that was the only piece of Dick's advice that I declined to accept.
But in any case, as the workload grew, as attention was drawn to the fast, I had more and more to do during it. And so I found myself working more and drinking less. And I was told to spend all of the day reclining to conserve my energy and strength. And as I worked more, I worked my systems and my heart more, and I got behind in my liquids and my blood thickened and then my pulse rate elevated. And I had to be, eventually, I think, on day 24 or 25, hospitalized for dehydration. And then there were the other things—trying to explain to my mother and my wife's mother, who lives in Saint Kitts in the West Indies what was-going on. And my mother had been told by a friend--and I don't think maliciously--that she'd already lost one son and now she was losing another. And so this was a very serious course I was on.
And on day 26, I got a call from Tony Lake to tell me that the president had changed the policy, and as I had said in the beginning, would I agree to stop the hunger strike? He had agreed to screen the refugees and to provide safe haven to those who were determined to be legitimate political refugees. And with that, I announced the end of the hunger strike and appeared with Sandy Berger on "Meet the Press" on that Sunday. And it ended well and successfully. And a great many Haitians had their lives spared and lived to see the restoration of democracy in country.
I think the president's dilemma was that Florida did not want Haitian refugees, wanted Cuban refugees. And we were treating them differently. We were taking fleeing Cubans out of the ocean, bringing them to Miami. Within a year, they would become eligible for American citizenship. We were summarily, without examination, returning Haitians to Port-au-Prince. So treating them very, very differently. And the president knew that he needed to--for his re-election in '96, the electoral block of votes of Florida, an
important state, the fourth or fifth largest and most important electoral state. And he thought that he would alienate Florida, were they to open the doors to Haitian refugees. And that was his dilemma.
LAMB: Were you prepared to die?
MR. ROBINSON: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: And you talked that over with your family?
MR. ROBINSON: Yes. I had talked it over with my wife. I had not talked it over with my children. As a matter of fact, our eight-year-old never knew that I was on a hunger strike. She knew there were demonstrations and she knew the point of them and she regarded Aristide as a godfather. She knew him quite well. He'd been to our home, friend of the family and he's very fond of children. And so she knew I was trying to help President Aristide return home and to the presidency and the restoration of democracy, but she never knew the seriousness of the course I put myself on.
LAMB: How many times have you been in jail?
MR. ROBINSON: I don't really know. I was arrested seven times at the South African embassy and once or twice at Shell Oil about the same issue and two or three times at the Nigerian embassy and once at the Ethiopian embassy when Mengistu was the president of Ethiopia. So quite a few times.
LAMB: How long have you spent in jail at one time?
MR. ROBINSON: Oh, no more than a night. When we were arrested at the South African embassy, the `we' were Mary Francis Berry, Walter Faunteroy and I. When we went in, we had decided beforehand
that we would stay in jail until the political issue was resolved. Of course, therefore...
LAMB: What year was that?
MR. ROBINSON: That was 1984, the day before Thanksgiving, November 21st, 1984. On that Wednesday, we went to the embassy and...
LAMB: You tell a story in here about getting the appointment with the South African ambassador for you all. How--was that hard to do?
MR. ROBINSON: No, it wasn't at all. He was eager to have the talk. That was something of a surprise, but it was at a time when white South Africans defending the apartheid system were eager to explain themselves to American leaders, African-Americans particularly. And so he seemed to be quite interested in having the discussion. And, of course, stunned when he learned that we were not going to leave. He learned that in the meeting from others who were calling in to the embassy to tell him that the press was assembling outside.
By then, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was with us during much of the meeting, had gone out to brief the press. And then he discovered that we weren't going to leave. And, of course, he sought counsel. He
called, I assume, Pretoria and he called the State Department. And he got advice, I was later told, from a former congressman who lobbied for--for the South Africans, who advised him not to have us arrested,
saying that that would be the worst of all options, and, of course, an option the ambassador ultimately could not resist. And he did that and provoked the Free South Africa movement and 5,000 arrests that went on for a year at the South African embassy.
LAMB: Let me read what you put in the front of your book. And it's a statement by Senator Ernest F. Hollings, Democrat, South Carolina, March 1994. Quote, "Everybody likes to go to Geneva"--I assume you're talking about Switzerland--"I used to do it for the Law of the Sea conferences and you'd find that these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they'd just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva." Senator Fritz Hollings, United States Senate. Why did you put that in the front of your book?
MR. ROBINSON: Well, because I think it, in many ways, frames the message and the purpose of the book. For African-Americans, racism is relentless assault on our collective personhood. I mean, it's something with which, for our very defense, we are caused to be preoccupied--you can seldom pick up a paper--in this morning's Washington Post, there's in the Metro section, again, blacks complaining in Maryland that discrimination against them had not been investigated and other articles. It has become routine in its assault and delivery.
And this kind of thing, obviously, it is manifestly, palpably racist. But it provoked no firestorm. No members of the Senate called for Senator Hollings' resignation. He was not caused to apologize, to explain. It produced no ripple and in this book, it will come, I suppose, as a surprise to many readers that
Senator Hollings ever said such a thing. So usual, in fact, is this sort of thing that it does not seem to anybody extraordinary.
And I suppose it describes the discussion, it describes in graphic terms the great racial divide in our country because if I suspect that white Americans are not preoccupied with issues of race, this is not something that would cause them a great distress or something that they will retain in their memories and think about.
But for African-Americans who--who essentially wear a mask, who don't reveal, who know that the constant repetition of a complaint irritates and bothers and puts off mainstream America, we register the insult that hardens and metastasizes on a daily basis and become preoccupied with this business of race and developing defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from it. And for that reason, I used this quote because I think it illustrates, in many ways, the dilemma of people who cannot make themselves heard and their pain felt.
LAMB: What's the reaction to this book so far?
MR. ROBINSON: I think, again, the reaction illustrates and describes this great racial divide that the book tries to address. And one has to be very careful about generalizing, but from blacks, I think it speaks for the large majority of African-Americans. I think it resonates in its descriptions of events and of things that occur for them on an everyday basis.
For whites, I've heard descriptions that were a bit surprising to me. That it is angry, that it is bitter, that is all of those kinds of things. And I think it is the kind of response from people who don't want to hear it. But a good many whites are comfortable with it.
But I think if we're going to have a racial discussion in the country that's useful and productive, at the very first, it must be honest. And I tried as hard as I could to write an honest book. I didn't want a scholarly foreign policy book. I wanted a book that was revealing and, of course, it's risky. If you reveal nothing, you risk nothing. But I think if we're gonna have an honest dialogue about race in the United States, we have to talk about our feelings and our sense of injury and the graphic enduring unfairness of this thing. If we don't use that as a starting point for this discussion, at the end of the day, we will have gotten nowhere.
LAMB: How long did you live in Richmond?
MR. ROBINSON: I lived in Richmond until I was 22 until I went to the Army.
LAMB: Where did you go to sch--college? In...
MR. ROBINSON: I went to college in--I started college at Norfolk State College in Norfolk, Virginia, now Norfolk State University. And I dropped out of school and got drafted, spent two years in the Army during the Vietnam period, came back to school, to Virginia Union, finished Virginia Union and then went to Harvard Law School.
LAMB: How many brothers and sisters?
MR. ROBINSON: I have one brother--had one brother and two sisters.
LAMB: You mentioned your brother is gone.
MR. ROBINSON: Yes.
LAMB: What happened?
MR. ROBINSON: My brother died of--my brother Max, who was a news anchor for ABC News, died of AIDS. My two sisters live here in Washington.
LAMB: You talked about your brother Max in the book. Is that the first time you've ever done that in public?
MR. ROBINSON: Yes.
LAMB: You told us things like his anger and--and difficulty in the whole world but also about the AIDS. The AIDS came fr--you—you had a--there was--there was rumors around, when he died, that AIDS
came from homosexual activity, but you did--you say it was from other reasons.
MR. ROBINSON: Well, yes. He told me that he had contracted this from a woman whom we both knew and that was the end of the discussion and...
LAMB: You say in the book that he disliked Frank Reynolds?
MR. ROBINSON: Intensely.
MR. ROBINSON: I think he thought he was racist and I think he thought he was unkind and I think he thought he was abusive and rude to him. He liked Peter Jennings a great deal. He liked Gordon
Peterson here in Washington a great deal. And Frank Reynolds and Alexander Haig were two of them on a very short list of people I ever heard Max speak ill of.
LAMB: Why did he speak ill of Alexander Haig? What was that about?
MR. ROBINSON: Well, he thought--again, he thought he was an obvious Fritz Hollings-type. Haig, who would--when Africa was being discussed in the White House during his tenure there, beat out tom-tom rhythms on the table. It was clear what his view of black people was and Africans in general.
LAMB: Where are your sisters, Jeannie and Jewel?
MR. ROBINSON: Jewel is here at the National Portrait Gallery and at night, she does theater work as an actress. My younger sister, Jeannie, taught school in the District for a long time, stopped doing that to return to school. So she's now at American University in divinity school.
LAMB: Your parents were in Richmond. What were they all about?
MR. ROBINSON: My father was a history teacher at our high school and coached sports at our high school. I played basketball for my father in high school. And he was a towering figure of strength. My mother had taught before she married in a school system in North Carolina. They had gone to school together at Virginia Union University, as had all of her sisters, who had come up from Portsmouth. But upon marrying, she stopped teaching to rear four children in Richmond. We were extremely fortunate. We had wonderful, strong, nurturing parents who set the bar high for their children. Expectations were that we would meet those expectations that they had set for us and wonderful parent examples for us. House full of books, discussion of politics and global issues all the time.
LAMB: When did your father die? How old was he?
MR. ROBINSON: My father was 68 when he died some 24 years ago. And he died--what we later learned to have been Alzheimer's disease.
LAMB: When you look back on him, what do you remember the most?
MR. ROBINSON: An uncompromisingly principled and strong man who believed that the important thing in life was to believe in certain principles and to live by them and to live according to one's own lights and not to worry about the sway of crowd but to do the right thing and to risk much if that is what is called for -in doing those things. As a basketball coach, he was one of those coaches I had in my life who
said, `It's not whether you win or lose--but how you play the game.' And he actually meant it. And so he was an important figure in my formation.
LAMB: What did he want you to do about shining shoes?
MR. ROBINSON: Oh, he told me--I'd ask him if I could do that when I was a child. Every kid wants to earn some money. I had carried groceries; I'd caddied once at the Country Club of Virginia and was abused by--verbally whipped by a golfer. When I rattled the clubs on the green, he told me he'd wrap one around my neck. I dropped the clubs, the bag, walked off, went home, never told Daddy. And so when I ask Daddy whether or not I could shine shoes, he was appalled that I would even broach something like this to him—we were poor, but we were not that poor--and said no son of his would ever shine a white man's shoes.
Now this was in the middle of total segregation. And we lived in a very conflicted world. We had a wonderful home and a circle of friends and a complete society that was all black, but whole and full for us and essentially happy. But just outside was a hostile world that humiliated us on a daily basis, a
segregation so complete that I never met a white person outside of the Jewish store owners for whom I worked as a grocery boy--I never met a white person until I went into the Army at age 22. And so one
can just imagine the assortment of constant humiliations and--I don't think those things, in the last analysis, end for any victim with the lifting of these restrictions. The scars stay with you indelibly for the rest of one's life. And so I think in the last analysis, my story is probably a story of moderate abuse. My story is--a very ordinary story. But the reaction from some is only extraordinary because of –perhaps the peculiarity of its honesty because this is a town in which honesty is something of a rare commodity.
LAMB: Your mother--is she still alive?
MR. ROBINSON: Yes, my mother is 84 years old. She lives in Norfolk, Virginia, still very active in church circles. My mother, when she didn't have a formal job, all of those years worked as a lecturer. She spoke at my junior high school. She spoke in churches across the country and very active in church circles. After my daddy died, she, at age 60, headed the Richmond YWCA, learned to drive, got her driver's license, bought a car and made a new life.
LAMB: What happened when you went to Goucher College the first time?
MR. ROBINSON: Well, my sister Jewel was the first black student at Goucher, and she had won, in high school, $5,000 in scholarships and that was a record at the time, to be eclipsed two years later by
Max, who won $7,000 in academic scholarships.
And it was family day at Goucher College, and all of the families of the students would come up for this. And I was 14 or 15 years old. I think I was 14, quite nervous. I'd never been in a room full of whites. I don't think I'd ever eaten in a restaurant before because there was nowhere at home we could eat. And we went up--the family, my parents didn't drive. We didn't have a car, and so Mr. Williams, my daddy's best friend--and I say Mr. Williams because that's how they referred to each other. It was always Mr. Robinson and Mr. Williams. These were formal times. And Mr. Williams had a car, and he was principal of the other black high school in the city. And he drove us up to Goucher.
And we were in the middle of the room packed with people trying to affect a kind of normalcy artificially
because, I mean, I think everybody was a bit uncomfortable. Goucher'd never had any black students before and everybody was--leaning over backward, trying to make us as comfortable and—I was a kid who had outgrown his--physically, his ability to coordinate his muscles in the same way you feel as you recall
adolescence. And I was just growing too fast. And you're very keenly aware of your gait when you're that age. And I'm walking into the room with Max's hand-me-down suit on. And I feel that that doesn't fit so well and I feel there's something strange about my walk and I'm uncomfortable and I sit down at the table, and everybody's staring at us, so I think everybody's staring at this family on display in the middle of the room.
And there's a block of lettuce on my saucer. And I don't know what to do with this block of lettuce. And I lean over to Jewel, since she is sophisticated, I thought, who knew all of these sorts of things. And I ask her what I was to do with the lettuce, and she told me I could cut it with the side of my fork. And I did and the block popped straight up in the air. It must have risen four feet in the air and landed between me and Max. And I said in the book that the thing glowed and it emitted a beeping signal, or so it seemed. And I was just seized with embarrassment and I didn't know what to do. And I leaned over and implored Max, `Please, pick it up for me. Please, please.' And he did without comment. And that is all that I
remember of family day at Goucher College.
LAMB: What about the Phenix City, Alabama, incident?
MR. ROBINSON: I was in the service in Ft. Benning, Georgia, and I had never been into town, never been over to Alabama. And we decided to go over to Phenix City--it's only a few miles away—one evening. And we had a white friend with a car, and he was from the North. He knew less about the South, of course, than we did. I was with another black friend, Warren Jackson of Atlanta. He knew something about the South, but in any case, he said he would take us into town. And we were on this dark road and stopped by by a policeman, who--there were no lights.
Either way, all we saw was this revolving light on the top of the policeman's car and he looked at us with a real menacing, glowering stare and told the driver to get out of the car and come to the back. And he looked in the trunk. And he asked him, `What are you doing with this niggers in your car?' And I'm in the backseat and my friend Warren is in the front. And we look straight ahead and our white friend says, `I'm just giving--they're friends. I'm giving them a ride to Phenix City.' He said, `Well, I don't understand what you're doing with these boys here. I was in the service as well and I never hauled any niggers around in my car.'
And we thought that something bad was going to happen on that road that night. But again, this was a kind of thing that was mild in those days. And we survived it. We were allowed to go on our way. He was warned never to do that again, the driver. And it was all that I remembered about Phenix City, about Alabama at that time. These things tend to carve themselves into your memory.
LAMB: You also tell an incident at Harvard at the l--in the library.
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah, I'm sitting in the stacks that night. I was preparing, I think, for a contracts exam. And you've got the study carrels in Langdale in the library, the largest law school library in the country. And I was wearing a suit and I had on a dress shirt and a striped tie. And I had my book open and my Magic Markers and my notes in the margin of my contracts book. And I'm preparing for final exams in the spring of that year. And another white student approached me and said, quite without malice, as if it
were a casual inquiry, `Are you the janitor?' again, I was stunned and I said with some anger, `Do I look like the janitor?' which was, I thought really an artless response because all he thought I looked like was implicit in his question.
But I discovered when I went to Boston --I had somehow had the notion as a child and as a young man--and perhaps we had this notion for our own essential defense--that racism was a phenomenon of the American South and that things were better in the North, fundamentally different; that these people in
the South, whites, were infected with some regional disease that had no application in other places. I was disabused of that notion when I got to Boston because there were areas of Boston into which you just simply could not go. South Boston, at the time, had people stoning buses of six-, seven-, eight-year-old black children being bused to school. And you found similar expressions of this at Harvard. And so I was soon to learn that this problem was not only a national problem but indeed a global problem.
LAMB: What is TransAfrica and when did you fine--found it?
MR. ROBINSON: In 1977 we founded TransAfrica as an African-American advocacy organization; later to be paired with the think tank TransAfrica Forum, to inform and to galvanize African-American views on--on foreign policy matters and provoked to this by this longtime American support for apartheid in South Africa. For so terribly long the US had invested in, lent to, diplomatically embraced, in many cases armed the apartheid government and underpinned the white minority regimes not just in South Africa but in Namibia, Rhodesia and the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau.
And I was a bit embarrassed about not knowing about these things, frankly, before I went to law school. I began to read, to discover that the US, for a long time, had been on the wrong side of all of these major human rights issues in the world. And we had an obligation, I thought--a moral obligation to dramatize and galvanize American opposition to this policy of support that our country was giving.
LAMB: You gave credit to an E.R. Braithwaite, if I'm pronouncing it right.
MR. ROBINSON: Yes. That's right.
LAMB: A--a book...
MR. ROBINSON: Yes.
LAMB: ...that you read that changed your life.
MR. ROBINSON: He's--E.R. Braithwaite, a Guyanese author, wrote the book "To Sir, With Love" that become a major movie starring Sidney Poitier. He wrote a slim volume called "A Kind of Homecoming." He had gone to Africa, and I used to seek refuge when I was in the Army and hating it in the post library. And I just happened upon Braithwaite's "A Kind of Homecoming" that recalled his trip to Africa.
And I'd always had this real curiosity about what Africa was like. You see, again, as children, we had been
swamped with movie products: Tarzan-type films, "Birth of a Nation." A--virtually all the films that were made that involved black people were offensive and insulting, and Africa was always described
negatively. I had a sense that this description was not accurate.
In any case, from childhood--perhaps because of my father, perhaps for other reasons I had the sense that--that there was a real kinship between us here and Africa. And my father was a big fan of Paul Robeson, thought him a very brave man, even when Robeson was being vilified for the positions that he was
taking that were career-destructive in many ways. And my father thought him a very principled, brilliant and brave man. And so this was a kind of environment at home.
LAMB: Who was Paul Robeson and what was...
MR. ROBINSON: Paul Robeson was, of course, a great American singer and actor, but the great man who spoke six or seven languages and distinguished himself in college as a formidable intellectual who, at the peak of his career, committed himself on these great global human rights issues like South Africa and other issues that took on American policymakers. And he was vilified and isolated for that. And...
LAMB: For being--also being accused of being a Communist.
MR. ROBINSON: For--accused of being a Communist as well. Whether he was one or not really wasn't so much the issue because to be called one at the time was so badly damaging.
LAMB: TransAfrica organization--how many people work there?
MR. ROBINSON: Thirteen--small organization.
LAMB: What's your budget for a year?
MR. ROBINSON: About $1 million. The biggest part is to run the Arthur Ashe Foreign Policy Library, a library of 6,000 volumes on Africa and the Caribbean, a public special library.
LAMB: You write in your book--and this is a little bit out of context, but you can explain it--`I am tired and diminished by the process.'
MR. ROBINSON: Well, I don't--to the extent that I have led a public life, I'm not a natural for it. I don't enjoy it. I hate raising money. I'm not good at it. I hate trimming my voice, modulating my language, being careful about what I say, being anything less than honest. I hate cultivating political support. I'm a terrible politician. I'm a worse fund-raiser and I'm a reluctant public person. I don't like speeches. I don't like--I'm not comfortable with television. I'm a very private person in a public job and I've never been entirely comfortable with it after all of these years.
And I think, you know, in the last analysis, fund-raising, in and of itself, when you have to keep your doors open and you have to essentially beg for gifts because you don't sell a product--All right?--your product is your work that people elect to fund or not to fund. It's diminishing, particularly when you've been forced to use dramatic measures to get a result.
We went to jail on South Africa. We dramatized the issue and we produced the public momentum necessary to turn the country around and to win support for sanctions--triggered sanctions across the world.
And when coupled with unrest in South Africa that was rising, pincered the government there so that F.W. de Klerk knew that apartheid had become just too expensive to maintain, and then the measure like a
hunger strike to get the United States to do the right thing, what it should've done in the first place.
Now all of these things are extremely taxing, and all of these things make fund-raising much harder to do. I don't think it's a disputable kind of assertion to make that the more controversial you become, the more difficult it is to raise money; that foundations and corporations are much more inclined to give money to organizations that do not take dramatic steps to win the kinds of measures we thought necessary to accomplish.
LAMB: How long you gonna do this?
MR. ROBINSON: Perhaps no more than another two to three years. I think there's a time to come and a time to leave. I'm 56 years old. And we have two responsibilities, I think, when we're doing these kinds of things. One is to be engaged and to work on contemporary issues and to get results, but the other is to build an institution. And sometimes you find the two in conflict.
To build an institution, you have to have money and you have to be able to pay for your facility. And we moved into and restored a $4 million facility four years ago. You have to retire that mortgage. And I have to leave the institution with an endowment of at least $5 million so that I hand over to the next generation of leadership, once we identify the 35-year-old or so man or woman who can take the baton and go the next leg. I think it would be wise and in the best interest of the institution and, indeed, my own in two or three years to step aside.
LAMB: Another quote from your book: "I am happy only at home with Hazel and my family. I garden, but only flowers. I am not a practical man."
MR. ROBINSON: Well, that's true. I've never quite understood the vegetable grower. I like photography.
I like to do woodworking. I like to work with my hands. There I can see a beginning and an end to whatever I'm doing. I'm an incurable romantic. I like beautiful things. I love beautiful music. And I think I'm an intensely introspective and reflective man.
And I love my wife --and it's her company I treasure, in addition to that of my children and a few close friends more than anyone else's. And I always feel in outside social situations, in Washington
situations, the pressures of the performer. Even when one meets people, you're introduced. I've forgotten the name as soon as I've met the person, I think because it requires a kind of concentration. I think it's a bit unnatural. And so I'm not quite listening, and I'm not comfortable in these kinds of situations.
LAMB: How old are your children?
MR. ROBINSON: I have a daughter, Inikai, who's 26, who teaches high school in the area. My son, Jabarae, 22, is finishing at Howard and he wants to go to law school. And my youngest child, Colia, who's eight, who goes to the Beauvior school on the grounds of the Washington Cathedral.
LAMB: Was it hard for you to write about your first wife?
MR. ROBINSON: Extremely difficult, and as you...
LAMB: And you don't name her?
MR. ROBINSON: No, I don't name her, and I write about that period very, very sparingly, largely because this decision to be a somewhat public person is mine, not hers. And I would not wanna compromise her privacy by describing her fully in a book like this. I don't see the value of it.
LAMB: Why did you write the book? I mean, what--you--you--there are a lot of--lot about you that's revealed in here, and you're—say you're not a public person. So why'd you write it?
MR. ROBINSON: Well, I guess, for two reasons. The book has a very private side to it and the public side. Let's talk about the public side first.
I think that America is a country that is extremely uncomfortable with its past and its less-laudable side. It causes us, as a society, to lie to ourselves about what we've stood for. We don't look into any mirror reflecting ourselves accurately as a country, unlike other countries that now are in a kind of atonement
trend. The pope, Pope John Paul II, calls this a purification of memory as we move towards the end of the millennium, where countries are honestly looking at their past, apologizing, often making restitution, reparations.
French are apologizing to 650,000 French Jews for the Vichy-Nazi collaboration during World War II. South Africa has a truth commission. Europeans are apologizing for Colonialism. The Canadians
are apologizing and making reparations available to an Indian population of 720,000 that has been abused since the 15th century. The US, of course, extended reparations to Japanese-Americans before a
World War II interment.
But our country is disinclined to even apologize for slavery. As inadequate, as an incomplete an answer as that would constitute to what has been done to African-Americans, not only refusing to apologize but to even make that chapter in our history a constant component in this country's telling of its own story to all
of its people--there's no museum on the Mall, there's no slavery memorial on the Mall. And when the memorial is built to Native Americans on the Mall, the only major group that will then remain
excluded from representation on the Mall will be African-Americans.
And then one looks at the Cold War period, a period in which the policies of our country virtually wrecked much of Africa, when we armed and supported and imposed on Africa undemocratic, despotic, corrupt leaders that have produced for us a Congo that is now in disarray, a Liberia that is in disarray, Somalia that is in disarray and three or four other countries.
An Eisenhower who supported the assassination of Congo's first leader, Patrice Lumumba; a CIA that imposed on those people in that country, a people who may have been democratic, but imposed Mobutu on those people; an America that provided a coup leader in Liberia during the '80s with $500 million in American assistance and $887 million to a corrupt dictator in Somalia.
But there is a disinclination to talk about these things. And our responsibility for Africa's dilemma now and when everyone raises these questions, one is accused of being angry or bitter or something of that sort. And that's sad because, for some reason, unlike much of the Western world, we are very uncomfortable
with our history.
LAMB: There--there's a word that I found in the book often. It seemed I found it more often than any other word. Do you know what that word would be? You got a guess?
MR. ROBINSON: No. No.
LAMB: `Anger' and `angry.' And I'll just read you a couple things and get you to talk about the anger part.
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: "I have no idea how the exterior side of my anger looks." And as you know--I mean, I wrote the pages down under the material...
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...you--you admit all through this, `I'm an angry man.' But explain more of the anger. How do you feel the anger?
MR. ROBINSON: It's almost difficult to do because it has been disguised for so long, and as I said, it is not an unusual anger because I think I am no more and no less angry than any other African-American.
It is simply, Brian, that this abuse of which I speak that has been lifelong cannot be a lifelong diet
without a price. It accumulates in your craw. And it can't be safely vented because all African-Americans know if you're going to be successful in our society, an expression of anger is the best road --the easy road to failure. It's unattractive. No one wants to hear it vented. And so we mask it. And I think there are many who have known me for many years who are surprised by this book because I don't seem the fella who would feel and then reveal this sort of thing.
But as I said some time ago, I really don't believe you can be treated in this way in the big and small
of things, in our policies--when Congress in November elects to protect in permanent residence status in this country from expulsion Nicaraguans and Cubans but does not include in the legislation Haitians and then explains it by saying, `We forgot.'
I don't think you can have Chiquita bananas give $1 million to the Clinton campaign to seize the export market that has been available to Caribbean banana producers in Europe for Chiquita, thereby devastating the democratic economies of the Caribbean that are dependent upon the banana exports; 50 percent of their employees, 70 percent of their revenues--countries that have been friendly to the United States. I just don't think you can do this without having a residual; to having the US just deliberately and with understanding
support something as vicious as the apartheid system or Portuguese colonialism.
Then you marry that to the daily small, routine insults--I don't think all of these things can accumulate in a psyche without some growth of anger. And the question is: How do you manage that? Offsetting that anger is--so that one is not disordered by it is a--is a wonderful family life and--and a rich, healthy sense of humor.
LAMB: What's Vernon Jordan's disease? And I know everybody that's written about this book has brought that up.
MR. ROBINSON: Well, in a way, that's troubling and that's sad, largely because that passage was written over a year ago and only plucked out by newsmakers or reporters because of the current situation with the president.
There is a pressure on African-Americans who aspire to reach the upper echelons of policymaking, great public success. There's a pressure to choose. I describe in the book the city of privilege. It's an allegorical city where blacks are caused to choose. How do you deal with the anger that we all feel? Do you mask it and accommodate to the system or are you driven out because of an honest and unattractive constant, relentless expression of this kind of anger? And so Louis Farrakhan can bring one in every 10 blacks over the age of 15 to Washington in a Million Man March and still not be a policy factor in this town, which would--just roundly disregarded anything he would have to say. And so he would be locked out of this allegorical city.
But those of us who function in the city, of whom I am one, are forced to cut deals. We make compromises. What can we say and survive, and what are we pressed not to say? How brave and honest
can we be? How much, implacably, can we stand for? Where do we stop before it becomes counterproductive? But where do we start so that we salvage some sense of self-esteem and self-respect?
And so this business of Vernon Jordan disease has to do with the driving of some of us to the fringe of full accommodation because we all know that the extent to which we make no complaint, that we make
no public condemnation, that we call for no public change in policy vis-a-vis blacks here or around the world--if we speak with muted voice, if we sit on our hands, we all know that the road to success for those is flat, open and upward. And so the extent to which we decide and elect not to speak out--and as I
say in the book, it is a degenerative memory loss disease--then we have contracted what I call Vernon Jordan disease.
On the one hand, you have African-Americans like Marian Wright Edelman, who was close to the president and the first lady, who spoke out vigorously against the welfare reform bill because she felt,
with reason, that it would drive countless--hundreds of thousands of children, if not millions, black, brown and white, into poverty. She put her status at risk. You have blacks like Earl Graves and Ed Lewis
--major business successes in the country who speak out on these issues. Ron Dellums, who's leaving the Congress now, even as chair of the House Armed Services Committee, was arrested at the White House
for protests on the Haitian repatriation issue and was one of the first to go to jail on the South African issue.
But on the other side, there a few blacks who have the ear of the president, who take no position on the great social policy issues of our time that have an enormous consequence for the black community.
They elect to remain quiet. And those are the ones who have contracted Vernon Jordan disease. I think Mr. Jordan has been in a position on several occasions to speak to the president about a range of issues and has elected to remain silent. I think that's lamentable, but at the same time I understand the pressures
that create these opposite results in our community. And that is a part of the ongoing dilemma for African-Americans.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book. Whole lot more in this book than we covered. It's called "Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America." And our guest has been Randall Robinson. Thank you
MR. ROBINSON: Thank you, Brian.
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