Brenda Armstrong, MD. January 19, 1949 ~ October 7, 2018 

Associate Dean, Medical Education; Director of Admissions, School of Medicine; Associate Professor, Pediatric Cardiology

 

Interviewed by Linda Belans. Published Jan 13, 2006. Duke University Medical Center. Excerpt from installation Gathering in the Stories, curated by Belans, with photographers Jim Lee and Leah Sobsey. (Other interviews will be fully posted later on.)

Interviewer: You hold several positions at Duke..

 

BA: Let’s see. I’m on the faculty in pediatric cardiology, Dean of Admissions for the Medical school at Duke, and I’m the Director of Fellowship Training for Pediatric Cardiology.

 

Interviewer: Is that all?

 

BA: (Laughs) Oh, those are the three major things

 

Interviewer:  How do they work together?

 

BA: Well, of the two major jobs – the thing that ties everything together is teaching.  I chose to stay in a teaching environment instead of full-time practicing – stay in an academic center because I wanted to teach, and I thought that by being visible to other blacks I could give them the kind of hope that people gave me when I was growing up. So what unites the two things is that I have access to people at multiple levels who are learners who are trying to figure who they want to be.

 

Interviewer:  How long have you been at Duke University?

 

BA: Oh, in July, it will be 30 years at Duke Med.  I came when I was a resident, but I never left.  Although I looked at a couple other places, I never left. I was an undergraduate at Duke in the late 60s, but left for med school and the first year of residency.

 

Interviewer:  What keeps you here, at Duke? 

 

BA: Unfinished business.

 

Interviewer:  Talk about that.

 

BA: It’s probably been unfinished business since before I came to Duke but I didn’t know it before I came to Duke.  I came from a segregated rural town in eastern North Carolina. I went to segregated schools, lived in a community that was segregated from where you were born to where you died, and everything in between.

 

Interviewer:  Where did you come from?

 

BA: Rocky Mount, North Carolina. My mother was a teacher, my father was a doctor, but he was country doctor in the truest and most noble sense of the word.  He made house calls - it was okay if you couldn’t pay.  And my mom was the only black teacher around with a Masters in English Lit; she was within a few hours of a PhD in English Lit from Columbia. And she taught with a kind of passion that you know, just don’t learn from someone, but just have.  My uncle was the principal of a local high school, so I had relatives who managed to do things like that when it wasn’t really possible because of segregation and lack of access.  But, somewhere in growing up, all of the people in my community were able to infuse that sort of ambition in us, and that was in the setting of having sub-standard facilities, hand-me-down books, no equipment, and even an edict from the school board saying that we weren’t supposed to be taught trigonometry and calculus, because we weren’t going to go that far in the educational system.  

 

However, on Saturday mornings, we learned those things, so we didn’t break the rules –we weren’t taught those things on regular school days but we were taught on the weekends, and we did things that most people are amazed at.  We read all of Chaucer by the time we were finished with 9th grade, and we read all of Shakespeare by the time we were 10th graders.  And we read a book a week, and learned 10 new words a week from 9th grade through 12th grade.  So our vocabularies were wonderful.  And no one in our high school was surprised that those of who took the SAT at the time and were going to college averaged at least 700 on the verbal part of the SAT, and about the same on the math part.  We had to take the test over because people had thought we had cheated, because we scored so high from a school that wasn’t supposed to produce those kinds of people.  But I didn’t – all I knew was, I was doing this to go to college, and not just any college. My parents chose Duke as the place that I would enroll. And when I got to Duke, as an undergraduate, there were about 20 blacks in my class, which at the time I thought was an achievement.

 

Interviewer:  What year was that?

 

BA: It was in 1966.

 

Interviewer:  So they had recently integrated?

 

BA: Well, we were the third class of blacks at Duke.  And it was clear Duke hadn’t given much thought to why they were bringing blacks to Duke, except they needed the numbers to meet some federal standard that would allow the federal government to continue giving them money.  So the seeds of all of the unrest that followed were probably sown there. Somewhere between sitting in a cold classroom on a Saturday morning instead of watching cartoons, we were learning trig and calculus and French literature, and history taught with social editorial.

 

Interviewer:  Who could come in on a Saturday morning to teach?

 

BA: Oh, our math teacher could.  He was trained to teach – he had a Masters in math and our French teacher who had a Master’s in French; our History teacher who not only taught the facts of History – world, American, North Carolina – but gave us the political and social impact along with the facts.

 

Interviewer:  No, I mean, that he would come in?

 

BA: Well, that was the rule, that all of our teachers taught well above what was expected and so they brought us with them.  They set the standards so high, and we just thought that was the way we were supposed to be learning.  So, we didn't question it at all, we just learned.  And they made the best of what they had. Our science teacher said that we would build our own equipment, and so we learned something about experimental error. And our Spanish and French teachers, who had masters in Romance Languages, said “We’ll get you to a point where you can read the literature, not just speak it.”  And so when I took the French placement test at Duke I placed into French Lit.  And I had a history teacher who wanted us to talk not just about the fact of history, but to think about it in larger terms, and so, it was a good time for me.  I was reading books and being taught by people I thought were really smart. 

 

And when I came to Duke the thing that impeded the further expansion of my learning was the attitudes of the people, who assumed that because we were black, and came from, for the most part, a segregated school system, that we could not have possibly gotten the same kind of education that the white students did, so they brought that to the table as a stereotype.  And so we were confronted with that in the classroom all the time, especially in science and math.  Visages of that are still on Duke's campus, now, almost 40 years later. 

 

So the Allen building [sit-in] was really the culmination of at least 3 years of a group of people who were socially segregated from the rest of the campus, and who were terrifically discriminated against in the classroom, because of stereotypes.  And so our experience at Duke was not equivalent to the white students.  And we were smart enough to know that, and also smart enough to say we want the same access and opportunity – that was what the Allen Building takeover was all about.  And the translation of the events leading up to the Allen Building takeover was for us, to speak up when things weren't right, and when we didn't get a response from the administration, to let them know that we heard the silence.  When those episodes continued, despite the fact that we would bring them to light, we would speak louder and in ways that got their attention, like the “study-in” in President Knight’s office. Sometimes things would happen and we'd ask for an explanation and redress, and there'd be a redress on Duke's campus across the board. But for the most part, there was silence of filibustering from the Administration.

 

So in academic year 1968-69, we outlined 13 things that were important to us, and to us, of the thirteen, there might have been five that were “life and death” issues, but we had learned by watching the Administration at work that you always ask for more than you want, so you get the things you really want.  And then when there was a lot of “running around the table” by the Administration waiting for us to graduate, which we knew about too, we decided – what really brought it to a head- was that three of our classmates who were academically put out of school, who were very bright, were drafted right away and died in Vietnam.  And they died because they had to leave college, leave Duke, for many of the reasons outlined as “classroom” stereotypes and horrific social isolationism and harassment.  And so that sort of brought everything to a head. 

 

Please understand that what I am saying is an oversimplification of a terrifically complex set of issues. But we decided that we had had enough, despite the fact that those of us who had participated in the Allen building were doing well in school, the price to us was enormous.  Emotionally, it was just enormous, and if we didn't stand up, anyone who came behind us would be subjected to what we were going through and more. In essence, it was what Martin Luther King said that if you don’t stand up for something, you’ll lay down for anything.  It was a calculated risk, but it was at the right time, because there were other students at similar institutions who were rising up.  So, we took over the Allen building.  And we planned the Allen building for months before we actually took it over.  The death of Martin Luther King, which would have been in April, before we took over the Allen building, April 4th 1968, I think, was one of those things that galvanized the support for thinking of this as an option if there was no further progress in our negotiations/discussions with the Administration.  We gave them a year - almost a year.

 

Interviewer:  Who was president?

 

BA: The President at the time was Douglas Knight. 

 

So, it was an amazing on a personal scale to have participated and been the leader of the Afro-American society at the time it was taking over.  I'm sure I must have been insane on some level, but it was probably the beginning of my own persona, outside of my parents' sort of ambitions for me.  But it was great. Those of us who went in that building, all of us took part of Dr. King with us.  And we walked out of that building, having fulfilled a lot of what he had stood for.  So for us, we realized after it was over, Duke would never be the same, which was good.  We had no idea that the impact of that one event would be so earth-shattering to Duke; basically it bursted Duke out of its little cocoon of being a self-righteous, smothered, insulated, regional, narrow-minded, conservative Southern institution. And it made it possible for Duke to be a national university.  It made it possible for Duke to find its “soul”, if you will. Whenever anybody writes the history of Duke, they'll have lots of reasons for why they thought Duke went national, for why Duke has enjoyed its new national persona, but the reason Duke – that Duke had that chance, to go national, was because Duke, at the moment of the Allen Building, didn't have a choice. When we decided to take over the Allen building, we had a way to circumvent the Duke press, to get to AP and UPI – as they were called at the time – and the national media, and we did it. So they knew, and the country knew even before the Duke press knew, that we had taken over the building.  And that was the moment that Duke became a national university.

 

And to their credit, after the smoke literally cleared, Duke chose to bring a leader who could heal and take advantage of the opportunity that the Allen Building thrust upon Duke, and move forward. They chose Terry Sanford, who was someone who had done almost the same thing for the State of North Carolina, someone whom everyone on all sides of the debate at Duke could trust to do what was right for Duke.  I just admired Terry Sanford tremendously; I loved him as governor, because he was the governor who helped me get to Duke by providing even my segregated school with access to higher education even while I was in high school. He was so far ahead of everyone else in his ideas about education for everybody in North Carolina.  So when he was chosen to take over for Douglas Knight, I thought, ‘Duke has a chance.’ And as the consummate politician, he knew how to listen to people, which was something Douglas Knight didn't know how to do.  And even though he might not be able to give us everything that we had asked for, he had figured out that he had to meet us halfway with a tangible demonstration of trust. He would always take what was in the institution’s best interests to heart first, but he understood that this thing that had happened was actually in the institution’s best interests, and the thing that the institution had to do was not to implode because of it.  And so he figured out a way to let all of the open wounds begin to heal, and then to bring some consensus, very slowly.

 

What he did was to divert the attention to building and expansion, not just of structures but of philosophy and community. He saw to it that Duke really began to expand, a signal that something new and exciting was about to emerge out of the ashes of the worst institutional division in Duke’s history.  At he same time behind-the-scenes, he worked almost feverishly to make sure that he met the African American community, and the Durham African American community, who had come in behind us to support us. He met us half way.  And he delivered on his promise to begin to redefine Duke’s definition of community.  If you talk to anyone in that era about Terry Sanford, you will not find one person who will have anything bad to say about him. 

 

And so I think that what we did, at least in the Allen building piece, was perfectly consistent with how much we believed in what Martin Luther King did for African Americans as a people.  We were the first vanguard of people that deployed out of Movement, out of college. We saw ourselves as the chosen, the ones selected by our communities at a special moment in history to carry forward their ambitions.  And what we did with our lives was going to be the validation that everything that Marin Luther King had said was correct.  And so we took it as something. It wasn't a mantra, it was really like a mandate, that we had to be good people.  And Martin Luther King, what he stood for, was really what most ministers stand for, which is to believe in people, to lead by example, to always remember that wherever you got, you didn't get there by yourself.  And so, therefore, you have the obligation to bring someone with you. 

 

All of those things that people think as platitudes, so-called Martin Luther King-speak, those were the rules by which we were to do this work.  Of those of us who went into that building, in terms of careers, we've been among the most productive people that Duke has put out, especially for a group of people who were theoretically disenfranchised and disadvantaged when we showed up at the door.  The Allen building thing, for me, was a beginning, it was a launching, and so if you look at what I'm doing now, it's just more of that history that began in a segregated, small, rural town in Eastern North Carolina, but at a different level.  And the unfinished business with Duke is that Duke isn't even finished yet.

 

One of the things that I like about Sandy Williams is his notion about “outrageous ambition”, which pretty much describes me to a T.  I went away to medical school because I just didn't think I could stay at Duke after the Allen building, and have anybody be fair to me.  There were 13 of us identified to be tried by Duke’s Judicial System, but given the fact that we were such a closely-knit community we all volunteered, the rest of Duke’s black student community, volunteered to be tried.  So Duke was effectively trying its entire African American community. The implications of losing its entire African-American community were enormous. At the time, we didn’t appreciate that fact as much as Julius Chambers, then Chief Legal Counsel for the NAACP, our lawyer, actually did. The implications for their continued receipt of federal funding were significant, not to mention the bad publicity that the entire incident would engender.  And, we had done our homework and gone to everybody that Duke had accepted for the coming year and asked them to sign affidavits that said if we were put out, they wouldn't come either.  So Duke didn't have a chance – and we all also put the department of then Health Education and Welfare on notice that Duke would not qualify for federal funding. 

 

It would take awhile for people to forgive us, not that we thought we needed to be forgiven. I thought seriously about whether I would transfer; it would be hard, given that I was a junior at the time, but everything that had happened at Duke had prepared me for just about anything.  It didn't matter where it was. Duke had prepared me for hostile environments, and so I knew how to survive. I needed all of those skills and more to survive medical school in St. Louis, where I was the only African-American female for three years in the school and one of a very few African-Americans in the school at all. And when I came back to Duke Med, I actually came back because the person who was chair of the department of pediatrics was someone who I thought was so far ahead in his politics, his social consciousness, and who joined Terry Sanford in my elite group of people who would move Duke forward, Dr. Sam Katz. Fortunately it was the right time for me to come back.  But I think I always knew I would end up back at Duke.

 

Interviewer:  Why?

 

BA: Some of it was because I just didn't feel like I got everything done when I was here the first time.  And I always tell people that Duke is my Alma Mater, it's my school, I went here.  And so there's a piece of me that gives me the right to legitimately criticize Duke as long as I also do something to make it better.  Even when I was a resident in pediatrics, I knew in the back of my mind that somehow I'd be staying for awhile, and so in the course of the thirty years, what I've done is try to think how Duke can be better for everybody, and I figured that it can only be better for everybody if it was going to be better for those who had been given the smallest stake in it, and at the time it was African Americans.  And so the last 30 years have been about building a different community, changing paradigms, preparing the institution for a major shift, giving a voice to those who didn't have voices, and not being afraid to do the experiment that I knew would be correct and we could be successful at, and sort of hoping that there would be some things that would give it momentum.

 

Interviewer:  Major experiment?

 

BA: The major experiment was to change the face of Duke, to give it a face for women and minorities, as well as for majority folks.  And that was not just students, it was across the board.  The experiment with the students I knew we would be successful at because we had done the infrastructure work.  Because people are successful as much as they see themselves in the people who are teaching, mentoring, guiding them, so if there were role models who are women and Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans – that the same people who are the learners, if they see those folks succeeding, then they expect that they're supposed to succeed, so you don't have to tell them that they are supposed to succeed, they see it everyday. And so we know that this experiment works, just based on our graduation rates for minority students, and how well they do at residency appointments.  And we had to change the character of the house staff, and we had to have faculty, and we had to have someone with a vision that understood that such a phenomenon had to drive the successful experiment with the students.  And we were fortunate – the timing has just really helped us – the appointments of key persons for leadership to a national persona for Duke.

 

First, it was the appointment of Nan Koehane as president, who we were able to get to early.  And Nan then said that diversity was not one of the priorities, it was the priority, and it will be the way we do the work of the university across the board. No exceptions.  I helped to write the Strategic Plan for Black Faculty Development, the second version. There were other people on the committee with me who wanted a watered-down version, so we sent her both versions, the one I helped to write and the one the others wrote, and she chose the version that I helped to write, which gave her and the Provost sweeping powers to implement her vision for diversity into the practices, processes and policies of the University, including but not limited to freezing budgets for non-compliance.  She championed the Strategic Plan for Black Faculty Development (SPBFD) to the Academic Council and the Board of Trustees; it passed both unanimously, so it became the sort of law of the university.  And that was the first step.  And then Ralph Snyderman, then Chancellor for Health Affairs, who was sometimes ambivalent about his ability to push a similar agenda through the Medical School at the time, but was always convinced and passionate about   the issues of fairness and equality, took the next step for the Medical School/Medical Center with the help of two very powerful senior black faculty persons, who were very active on campus as well as on the medical school: Charles Johnson and Onye Akwari.

 

Dr. Johnson and Dr. Akwari, who had been on the Academic Council, knew Nan and had worked with her to push the SPBFD through the Academic Council, and so they were able to calm Ralph's fears that the faculty wouldn't revolt.  And then what they all, Drs. Snyderman, Johnson, and Akwari said to us, who were at the time then junior faculty and house staff, was to “go do it”. And so we did just that; in the early 90s, we began to build that new community in earnest. We had been working at a slower pace earlier but we started really recruiting house staff and faculty, and we were able to get the faculty to invest in the work that we were doing. And then when I was appointed Dean of Admissions, Dr. Snyderman gave me the latitude to really look more closely at whether we were adequately addressing the healthcare needs of a demographically changing community in our present admissions paradigm.

 

We found that we as a medical school were not, but neither was anyone else. We looked carefully at the stereotypes about Duke, the South, and the other obstacles that kept us from being a national medical school, and in so doing had to face some pretty significant demons. With the help of our faculty, house staff, students, and administration, we crafted a strategic plan to identify how we would create an educational environment that would be true to James B. Duke’s indenture while thrusting Duke to a position of leadership in the training of healthcare providers better aligned to the needs of a different community.  Instead of waiting for people to come to Duke we took Duke to the nation.  And on the face of Duke the focus of the recruiting changed so that instead of being majority male, it was all inclusive – some  majority, some minority, some female – aggressive, passionate, diverse, extremely intelligent, and with a curriculum at its central focus that was superior to anything else in the country. And then we overhauled all of our print media opting for state-of-the-art electronic, web media and web application processes which we developed in-house well before anybody else in the country. So we got ahead of everybody else. And then we identified the places where we wanted to go to recruit African Americans and Latino students and Native Americans, and went after them. 

 

The windfall has been that our applications from under-represented minorities have tripled, and we got our first class of almost 20% of students who were under-represented, and 50% who were women in 1996, while maintaining, if not improving traditional indices of academic excellence. And we haven't looked back.  And now that we have graduated these first classes, we have evidence-based results that these first different and diverse classes have performed exceptionally well. And, all of this has happened despite the fact that there still is some institutional inertia for what appears to many to be a changing paradigm. But there are lots of other new voices, some from the most unlikely places and some who are new to Duke who have surfaced to embrace and carry forward the notion that diversity empowers and strengthens our institution.

 

We have also realized the phenomenon that in a medical school like Duke with its not-so-distant history of racial and gender discrimination, there is still a whole lot of dead, old weight that continues to hold fast to attitudes and practices that hinder the emergence of Duke as a great institution that either has to retire, die, or somehow separate itself from being an active and influential part of Duke’s emerging growth as a national leader and model of progress. And that piece has begun to occur, so that there really are a wonderful core group of leaders at Duke Med who are transforming the “outrageous ambition” into institutional change across the board and at multiple levels. There's Sandy Williams, and now Victor Dzau.  And so the true reinforcements have come, and along the way people have discovered that we're onto something special here at Duke, and well ahead of our peers. In some quarters across the country, in discussions among Foundations, at the AAMC, among our medical school counterparts, at undergraduate institutions where the elite pre-medical students are preparing for medical school, it is being called “the Duke Experiment”, and everyone is talking about us as the model for the country. 

 

And then it has a life of its own through the students – the students are empowered and active, it's like they are metastasizing to all these other places as house staff and being incredibly productive and exceptionally talented in their post-Duke experiences. Even some of our students are even coming back as faculty.  So to me, it is the absolute appropriate fulfillment of much of what Dr. King wanted to happen.  He thought that one person could make a difference, and that it was hard work, and that it would take a paradigm shift.  It would take multi-level involvement; it would take all of us as African Americans, and a bunch of visionary white people. And he was right, and it is his model that we had built Duke’s transformation on.

 

One of the most important decisions that we made was that we never wanted an Office of Minority Affairs because that would be divisive; it would isolate and marginalize the student diversities that we wanted to bring into a larger community – it would defeat the whole concept of diversity.  The sort of way that we do this is to explain to everybody that everyone brings something different to the table, and no one's gift is better than the other.  And that's why there's so much power in this as a community ethic, is that there are multiple gifts of equal value, and that is how they are recruited and therefore, it really is a diverse community.  To me, it's just natural; it's me living out Dr. King's dream.  Or at least, carrying it forward and making some of the folks that I bring to Duke, forcing them to carry it forward.  So it has an exponential multiplication rate, if you do it this way.  That's a long-winded answer to your question, sorry.

 

Interviewer:  That was perfect. That was beautiful Brenda. Have you ever told the story this way before?

 

BA: I probably have told bits of it.  I try to tell people, I especially have tried to tell students who are in high school how disappointed sometimes I am that they, who have been the recipients of all this struggle, have taken it for granted.  And that the reason I expect so much more from them is because they have so much more to start out with.  And that's when I can tell them about – there would be days in my high school that we couldn't have chemistry class because there was a hole in the roof that had never been repaired because we were in a black segregated high school.  You can't have water dripping in when you have sulfuric acid around, but we always made those classes up. We were so proud of the fact that we were learning so much, and so hungry to learn so much more.  It wasn’t the facilities that mattered, it was the teachers’ passion and dedication, it was the force of the community’s hopes for us, it was knowing that we were the chosen from our families and communities, that made us who we were, and we owed it to them to take our places and make our contributions. And we have done so without fear, sometimes without personal gain, without thinking of ourselves as victims but as survivors with a purpose. 

 

And the community was so proud of us.  And when we took our SATs and the lowest score was like 1410, and the highest score was like 1580, even from that restricted, segregated, community.

 

Interviewer:  What was yours?

 

BA: 1580.

 

Interviewer:  How did I know?

 

BA: [Laughs] No, no, but – my mom told us that that we were prepared and that was all that mattered. I remember the day that everybody took what is now called the English AP Test, and she had just prepared us so well, because we had learned all those words from the 9th grade until the 12th grade – ten new words a week – and we didn't just learn them, we had to use them, we had a test on them, we had to – and then every Friday we had to, in class, use the words as part of the way we spoke..

 

Interviewer:  Was she your teacher?

 

BA: She was our teacher, yes. My mother was my English teacher for four years. But you know, she just kept telling us, when we were panicking, she said, “Listen, relax, you know all the words.  We've been doing this since the 9th grade.” And so when we got our test scores back, on the AP Test, there was only one person who didn't make an 800, and he made like a 780 or 760, and she was just in tears. She could not believe it.  And we were like, “Why are you crying, you're the one who told us that we were going to do this.”  And we were just ecstatic that we had done so well, and we did comparable, we weren't quite an 800 for the math part, for the math part we were in the 700s.  And this is why they thought we had cheated, because we weren't supposed to have taken anything higher than algebra two.  And then we came and blew away this exam, and so they were all just – for them our teachers – it was like somebody had given them the Nobel Prize.  And after many years of this, I asked my mom, I said, "Why are you guys…this was just a signal achievement to you?  Why was it?"  And that's when she said, “Most of us should have been teaching in college, because we had Masters Degrees, but because it was the South, the best we could do was to teach in high school.”  And she said "We just decided that if we were going to teach in high school, we were going to teach you all as if you were in college, and that is why you were so far ahead of everybody."  And she didn't just do that with her college-bound students, she did that with everybody.  She said, “Everybody needs to know how to talk.  It's fine to use the slang language, but everyone needs to know how to speak, and they need to know how to read, and that's what we're going to be about in this school.”

 

 Interviewer:  What was the name of the school?

 

BA: Booker T. Washington Senior High School.  That's how you knew all the black schools in the South, they were named for heroes.  And then I had this wonderful history teacher named Esmeralda Hawkins. In the State of North Carolina, then Governor Terry Sanford said, “If we cannot teach everybody at the same level, then we're going to pipe into every school what they should be teaching.  I don't know if it was every day, or every other day, but the North Carolina Department of Education piped in the teaching of North Carolina history, United States history by television. I don't think we did world history. And so in our classroom there were these two TVs, and during those days we had that.  And then she Esmeralda Hawkins would then teach from that, and from the unit, and when I got into college, I was like, I was doing this in high school, and when they were talking about stuff, and I realized that the level of the discourse in high school had just made me further ahead than even the majority students in my classes. It wasn’t that I was intuitively smarter, it was just that I was so surrounded by these teachers whose vision for me was so much greater and who took me to such a higher level of academic performance in high school.

 

And I could have been taught in a shack, which was what my school was compared to the white school in Rocky Mount, but you know, it didn't matter.  We had everything that everybody else had: we had a great band, a great music program, we had a great vocational ed. Program. Our vocational ed. program built houses in Rocky Mount. And we had great academics.  The guy who left our high school, the year after I graduated, became the most beloved biology teacher at N.C. State, and he was the one who told us not to worry about the fact that we had this broken down equipment, he was like "Oh, we'll just build it, and then you'll learn something about experimental error." And then we had Spanish and French teachers who, when we were in the classroom, taught us to speak continuously in French and Spanish, and that’s what we did. From the time we walked into miss Steven's classroom, we would speak French, we wouldn't speak any English. We’d just speak French to each other, or the Spanish students would speak Spanish to each other. And so nobody should be too surprised that we did it, and so we had two students in our graduating class that went to Julliard.  And they did well.  It was okay.

 

I don't profess that being oppressed and being deprived is right. It isn't.  What is unique about African Americans in this country is that what was tantamount to apartheid in this country produced a nobility and dignity, and just profound vision of survival among us, that has driven our lives and has especially made us understand, that truly, wherever we got in life, we got because of all the shoulders that we were standing on, that were just showing us where to go and how to get there.  So there's no right that any of us have to be arrogant or to feel that we were blessed. We were blessed only to the extent that we were fortunate enough to have that kind of profound community to grow us up.

 

So my Booker T megaphone, the one remaining symbol of my years in a rural, segregated community, the years educated in a segregated school system, speaks in volumes of the legacy of hope and ambition, the quality of intellectual and academic growth that I sustained from the community, the mandate to speak the truth, to live up to the incredible, wonderful, and dignified history through which my people have survived and contributed to this country, and the hope that the generation that I impact will continue to do the same. That megaphone embodies all that I have received from my ancestors and all that I hold dearly to sustain me through life.

 

Interviewer:  That's beautiful.  Maya Angelou says, “You’ve already been paid for.”

 

BA: That's right

 

 Interviewer:  Thank you so much for this incredible interview.

 

Jan 13, 2006