Friday, August 21, 2015

I will miss my friend

Memories of Julian Bond 

by Janet Cheatham Bell

"These words come, after all, from a steady triumph of right over wrong. Some of these are angry words--but anger is a proper emotion to bring to this fight. Some of the words are humorous--laughter is a frequently employed weapon that can win--and wound. And some are musical, lyrical--prose poetry from singers without any instrument except their voices or pens and their minds." 
Julian Bond in the introduction to my book, Till Victory Is Won: 
Famous Black Quotations from the NAACP.

Julian and me in 1977 at a fundraiser for the late Hoyt Fuller's First World magazine

I first met Julian in 1969. I was living in Athens, Ohio with my husband, Art Saxe, who was a professor at Ohio University (OU). The previous year, after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and in response to student demands, I had been  recruited by OU's English Department to teach African American Literature. In that position I was doing everything I could to increase the presence of blacks in what had been a completely white department, so I persuaded them to sponsor Michael Thelwell for a stint as a writer-in-residence. Although we'd never met, I thought Michael's work as both a writer and an activist would appeal to my students.

We invited Michael to dinner at our house and he asked if we would drive him to a nearby Ohio town where Julian Bond was scheduled to speak. Afterwards, we went out for a drink. Julian and Mike (buddies from their SNCC days) were so busy catching up with one another, they hardly knew Art and I were there. Julian had no memory of that meeting.

We met again seven years later in March 1976. I was divorced and living in Indianapolis, employed by the Indiana Department of Public Instruction (DPI). I was the state's Curriculum Consultant for Ethnic Studies. The state Social Studies Consultant was hosting a Midwest Regional Conference, co-sponsored by DPI. Julian had been engaged as the keynote speaker and I offered to pick him up from the airport. 

We had a couple of hours before he was to speak, so we went for coffee and I coached him on what I thought he should say to the Midwest educators. He was relaxed and easy to talk to with a self-deprecating sense of humor. I learned that we shared nearly identical interests in literature as well as politics. He had been an English major in college just like me. A few days after he left he sent a nice thank you note to the office.

A few months later I saw him again at the "Black Bicentennial" in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, held in June. I had convinced DPI it was essential that the Ethnic Studies Consultant attend Heritage Days: The Black Perspective (the official name of the black bicentennial). My good friend Helen joined me for the event. Julian was one of many speakers at the celebration, and when Helen and I had lunch with him he gave us each a copy of his book, A Time to Speak and a Time to Act

After that, Julian and I kept in touch regularly, for years by phone and letters; later by email. We often exchanged newspaper clippings and copies of articles we wanted to share or discuss. Whenever he was in Indianapolis or nearby, I'd go hear him speak and we'd meet afterwards. While my son and I were living in Boston, Julian filmed an episode of Sesame Street at WGBH and invited eight-year-old Kamau to be one of the children in the segment. (That was W. Kamau Bell's television debut. Things sort of came "full circle," when as host of his own television show, Totally Biased, Kamau interviewed Julian at a 2012 Presidential Inaugural Ball.) 

In 1976 Julian almost ran for President of the U.S. himself. This is a T-shirt left over from that aborted run. (Collector's item maybe?)

Here's four-year-old Kamau in his child-sized version of the T, which he ripped up as part of his Incredible Hulk-bursting-out-of-his-clothes bit.

When I quit my job to publish quotation books, Julian encouraged and supported me when some others thought I'd lost my mind. He generously wrote endorsements for my books and introduced me to folks he thought might be helpful. Julian was also a writer and poet and sent me handwritten copies of a proposed series of stories similar to Langston Hughes' famous "Simple Stories." Julian's wise and outspoken character was named Leroy. 

In 1987, my friend was at a low point in his life. John Lewis had defeated him in 1986 for a seat in the U.S. Congress, he was estranged from his wife who publicly accused him and others of being addicted to cocaine, and on June 21 The Washington Post Magazine published an article by Juan Williams titled, "Julian Bond on the Edge." It was not a flattering piece. Julian was particularly dismayed because he felt betrayed by those he'd thought of as friends. I consoled him as best I could.

He was not beaten down by these experiences, however, and wrote back to say he would be working with Paul Simon on a series of benefit concerts starring Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He sent me two tickets for the Chicago-area concert. My date was mighty impressed with our seats, which were just four rows from the front. In fact we were seated just in front of Julian, who proudly introduced his date, Mavis Staples.

As often happens after a period in the dark, people emerge to find a new direction illuminated. The congressional defeat was the end of Julian's political career, and the beginning of an expansion of his career as a media host/commentator, national chair of the NAACP, and professor of civil rights. The University of Virginia, where he taught for twenty years, is raising money for a fitting tribute: endowing the Julian Bond Professorship of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

We had been in touch less frequently in the last few years, but I am shaken by his passing; it took a few days for me to accept the reality of it. I wasn't ready for him to leave, but obviously he was ready to go.