Ambassador Andrew Young On Racial Sickness & Intimidation

In a time at Dartmouth when the ideal of absolute political correctness seems to cripple, more often than enrich, intellectual debate, the candor and familiarity of my conversation with the fourteenth United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, touched me like that elusive ray of sunshine peeking from behind the gray clouds in the middle of a cold Hanover day. It was pure warmth. He began our talk with, “Whatever you want to ask me, go on ‘head and ask me…and you can do whatever you want with it,” spoken in a pleasant southern drawl, punctuated with a raspy laugh. Despite the beads of nervous, excited sweat accumulating on my forehead, I felt the corners of my mouth turn up in to a grin—disarmed. I felt, after the first few minutes on the phone, that I’d been taken into his inner circle, his office in the White House, perhaps, or, more accurately, his kitchen counter or dinner table—yes, the dinner table feels right—that he was going to give me privileged access to what he really thought. Just his manner of speaking created a sense of place—I, no longer in the sweltering Tribeca apartment, and he, no longer in the backseat of the chauffeured town car he patiently directed through the streets of Atlanta. 

I quickly realized that the Ambassador, as he is to be addressed, is from a different era—he could not have been able to help his friend and confidant, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., cure the sickness of segregation by equivocating and playing nice. It seemed to me that he’d never been one to tip-toe around the point. Though packaged in the voice of a typically jovial southern grandfather, his manner of communicating, the way he spoke his mind, revealed his intellectual deftness and an almost ruthless edge. He was charismatic, with a presence that could fill the room and a laugh that could alter the direction of your day. 

So now I invite you to be transported as I was, to sit with us in this Georgia parlor as we spend a few offhand moments in conversation with Ambassador Congressman Mayor Doctor Grandpa Andrew Young. A discussion on literature, as it happens, has just started us off...

NS: I find that many black writers have articulated a feeling of being restricted by their identity, that any American black man looks at himself not as a man, but as a black man. The idea is that, as a black man, you cannot expect to be assessed by society based only on what you contribute to it, but only on what you contribute to it from your place as a black person. James Baldwin, one of my personal heroes, and someone you’ve mentioned as a source of insight for you, writes this:

“I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here. (Sometimes I still do.) I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer. I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them. (I was as isolated from Negroes as I was from whites, which is what happens when a Negro begins, at bottom, to believe what white people say about him.)” from Nobody Knows My Name (1961).

And on the influence of American society on black men in Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), James Weldon Johnson writes:

“And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each colored man in the United States. He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, nor even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man.”

I find it fascinating that these two authors wrote about fifty years apart from each other, and here we are, yet another fifty years later, still on the same question of what American society does to black men. 

AY: Well I didn’t agree with James Baldwin then because I didn’t grow up like James Baldwin. I grew up in New Orleans, in the South, in a neighborhood with an Irish grocery store on one corner, an Italian bar on another, and the Nazi Party on the third corner—people were hailing Hitler. Now, before I went to kindergarten—and I was four years old—my daddy had to explain to me what white supremacy was. He called it "a sickness." And he said that you don’t get angry with sick people; you don’t let them affect your view of yourself. 

He took me to the Olympic filming of Jesse Owens when he won his first race: rather than give him—present him—the medal as he had all the other athletes, Hitler stormed out. And my daddy said, “Well see, Jesse didn’t let that affect him at all. He just went on and broke three more world records.” [Laughs] I would say that, unfortunately, James Baldwin grew up in an almost totally black neighborhood. See, I had to test myself—I mean, it was funny because my daddy said all the time, “Don’t get upset about other folks’ sickness. And you don’t get mad, you get smart.” And that was his mantra. He said, "It’s a struggle. It’s a fight. If you lose your temper in the fight then you lose the fight. So you think your way through difficulties and you have to do your best to understand peoples’ sickness." 

Now, he was a dentist, see. And he said to me, “When somebody comes to me with a abscessed tooth in the middle of the night,” he said, “I know this tooth has been bothering them all week long. And yet they wait until they can’t stand it anymore to wake me up. Now, I could get mad at that. Or, I could understand why they did it,” see. 

And he and my grandfather taught me that you have to be extremely rational and reasonable in dealing with race: My grandfather was—I don’t know how it happened—he was born in 1860. But, by 1910, 1912, he had…well, he had four and a half million dollars in the bank. In Franklin, Louisiana. Now it wasn’t his money, but he sort of served as the treasurer for a number of burial societies and masonic type organizations. And he was somebody that everybody trusted. And so, the way he used his money was whenever there was a racial incident in the town, he would go to the bankers and say, “Look, this community is not treating its colored citizens fairly, so I really wish you would transfer my account to your New Orleans branch.” [Laughs] And they immediately said, “Uh oh uh well wait a minute, Mr. Frank. [Laughs] Wha— wha— what seems to be bothering you? We’ll straighten him out. Don’t you worry about it!” See? And this was right in the middle of the black codes and the beginning of the Ku Klux Klan. You have to get smart.

But I had a different kind of upbringing in the South, see, and I think almost everybody in the South, from the time they were kindergarten age, had parents who started teaching you about race. And it wasn’t—I mean, if anything, it gave me a superiority complex. [Laughs] I mean, “You’re not like those folk.” My grandmama said, “That’s po’ white trash. Don’t let them bother you!” see. 

But even with my father and the suppliers of the dental companies that he worked with, I was always encouraged to speak to them, to shake hands with them, look them in the eye, see; and I was raised to think of myself as a child of God that didn’t need to take no backseat to anybody. You know? But that wasn’t just true of me. That’s true of the South. See, my entire family came up that way. And my grandmother said, “If somebody calls you a nigger and you don’t fight, you gon’ get beat when you get home if I hear about it!” [Laughs]

My daddy’s argument—his direct teaching—was, “You don’t lose your temper; you think your way through. You can reason your way out of most any difficulty.” My grandmother said, “If you have to fight, you better fight,” see. [Laughs]

James Baldwin speaks to another issue afflicting black men today—how we define ourselves in a society that’s already got a specific place in mind for us. How do we break a mold created to accommodate adherence and rejection?

“There was not, no matter where one turned, any acceptable image of oneself, no proof of one’s existence. One had the choice, either of ‘acting just like a nigger’ or of not acting just like a nigger—and only those who have tried it know how impossible it is to tell the difference.” James Baldwin from Nobody Knows My Name (1961). 

NS: There seems to be a constant longing for the black man to prove or disprove the stereotypes about himself. During your long career, both as an activist and especially as a statesman, have you ever felt the tension of having to always act a certain way, or to fit a certain mold, because of your blackness? In the same vein, I wonder if you’ve ever felt that, as a black man, you’ve had to prove yourself more than your peers, that you needed to show that you were qualified, despite,—if that’s the word I want—your being a black man. 

AY: I’m just saying that it was true of segregation that, again, it was a sickness. I never felt the need to prove myself—and I don’t, to this day. I had to fight with the State Department. See, there were nineteen different clearances to change a resolution, but [President] Carter made me Cabinet-level. So, when all of these little smartass white boys, [Laughs] you know, tried to tell me what to do, I said, “Okay, okay…okay thank you.” And then I’d pick up the phone and I’d call the Secretary of State or the President and tell them what my views were to see if that was all right with them. And in every incident they said, “Yea, go ‘head with that. That’s good.” And then I’d make 19 little crackers mad.

And they were afraid—they could see everything I had worked on was successful: the Panama Canal was successful; I didn’t have a lot to do with Camp David, but I was behind the scenes working with that; and all of a sudden with Namibia and Zimbabwe, the State Department was telling me it couldn’t be done—and we did it. And so it was. 

I mean, I like sports. I always took, you know, life like a football game. [Laughs] You don’t make a touchdown on every play. You do have serious opposition, and you have to think your way through and you have to try—I mean, if you don’t make it on one side of the line, you try the other. See? If you can’t go through the middle, you go around the end, or you pass. And so the mistake is thinking that life is supposed to be simple and easy for anybody. [Laughs] You know, life is a bitch! [Laughs]

…And even if you’re white—white folks get all messed up too in the mind about nonsense. But, you know, it’s real to them. But, I don’t know why black folks…I was never taught to believe that life was easy or fair. 

NS: Do you think that’s because of your black upbringing? 

AY: No! No, life is a struggle. And I don’t know why black folks think it’s supposed to be fair. [Laughs] I mean, in fact, black folk, of all races, know that it’s not fair. See? 

Even in your own family—I was the darkest one in my family and they…I mean, I had relatives say to me, “You’re a nice lookin’ boy if yo’ hair wasn’t so nappy. [Laughs] You’d be alright if yo’ hair wasn’t so nappy.” And I’d talk back: “It ain’t my hair, it’s what’s in my head!” see. And I think I had parents who really worked to prepare me for any adversity and to anticipate the fact that life is trouble, and you have to be prepared to deal with it.

NS: I’m sensitive to the fact that no matter what social space I’m in, people outside of our race will look at me as representative of all blacks, that somehow I have to always be on my A-game for the sake of the black community. This is something Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls “the ‘burden of representation,’ the homely notion that you represent your race; thus, your actions can betray your race or honor it” (from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man). Would you agree that you bear this burden?

AY: No, because that’s what my mama did to me. [Laughs] And I rebelled against it. My father was a dentist. If I had to go into town to get some dental supplies or something, she made me come in and wash up and put on a shirt and tie to go downtown. And, you know, they always said, “Because you’re black, you can’t be ninety-nine and four one hundredths percent right,” [Laughs] see. Nobody’s gonna give you the benefit of the doubt.

And you know, I rebelled against that, see. And my parents took me—and I’m grateful—they took me to see Paul Robeson, Dorothy Maynor, Marian Anderson…all the high class black people stuff. But, see, I talked slang and I’d say, “Mama, look, I got’ta make it out in these streets,” see. “I got’ta make it out in these streets.”  My parents were very religious, and I cussed a lot. [Laughs] You know? And I talked back to them. And took my punishment. 

A major part of my parents’ education of me was preparing me to deal with white folks. And it was—I mean, it was not supposed to be a crystal fair. [Laughs] You know, these are some sick and insecure people who feel like because they don’t measure up in their society…In my neighborhood, it was mostly poor whites. And so, the basketball court was in my backyard. See, and I got called in to lunch. They didn’t get called in because they didn’t have much at their houses. And, you know, sometimes if I was with friends, I would bring them in and make my parents serve them lunch, too. But it was…it was a privileged and unusual position in some ways. 

But it was also typical—I used to be ashamed to be in the black bourgeoisie. But, come to think of it, that was Martin Luther King, and Thurgood Marshall [Laughs], Clarence Mitchell, Charles Drew, James Weldon Johnson, you know, W.E.B. Du Bois… Being black and arrogant and self-confident was an absolute necessity for survival. 

And you’re taught that life is a struggle. You grow up knowing that life is rough, and you’ve got to be tough and rough to take it. But you never lose your temper and you use your mind to think your way through any difficulty. 

Ambassador Young’s unwillingness to be made anyone’s victim was readily apparent, reminding me of a salient passage from White Girls, a work by New Yorker theater and cultural critic Hilton Als. Refusing to be pigeonholed as a black writer who can write of nothing else but the oppressed position of blacks, Als seeks to infuse the black reality with dignity:

"In writing this, I have become a cliché, another colored person writing about a nigger’s life. So doing, I’m feeding, somewhat, into what the essayist George W.S. Trow has called “white euphoria,” which is defined by white people exercising their largesse in my face as they say, Tell me about yourself, meaning, Tell me how you’ve suffered. Isn’t that what you people do? Suffer nobly, even poetically sometimes? Doesn’t suffering define you?" 

Ambassador Young, unflinchingly maintaining that he never expected life to be fair, will never be plagued by the ethos of suffering—no, he fights because white euphoria at his expense is never an option. 

Ambassador Young is the consummate storyteller: his charismatic confidence is infused with a particular je-m’en-foutisme, a sense that he’s already hit the zenith of society and couldn’t care less if you take issue with his matter-of-fact tone. This, again, made me feel right at home with him. Over the course of our conversation he had some advice for me in the form of a story. (You’ll notice that Ambassador Young’s stories never leave you guessing what the takeaway is—he’s going to give it to you explicitly.)

AY: But you know, I have a couple of friends who went to Dartmouth. One of them is Cheese—Thomas Cheese is his name. When he was in tenth grade, he was supposed to be introducing me at something for school, and his teachers were so excited that I, the Mayor and Former Ambassador, was coming. 

And they started projecting onto him all of their anxieties and insecurities, see. And, I mean, they were putting so much pressure on him that he broke out in to hives! And I said, “Now wait a minute, Tom, look. You have known me since, you know, your Sunday school days.” And I said, “Sometimes you have to look these white folks in the eyes, and when they are harassing you and telling you what to do, just say—you can’t say it out loud—but you have to say to yourself, ‘Go fuck yourself. I got this.’” [Laughs]

And I said, “You got this, Tom! You know more about me than they could have ever read. It doesn’t matter where I went to school, see, or what my major was, or, you know, how many honorary degrees I have. That’s the kind of stuff that they can read. You tell them any of the little inside stories and fun we had when you were growing up.” I said, “The more personal you make it, the better that it’s gonna be and the more that everybody’s gonna like it.” I said, “There’s nothing worse than standing up reading something that someone copied out of Wikipedia.” 

And when he did that, he got up and he introduced me like I was his friend, which is true! See, and everybody thought—all of those teachers that were very anxious, you know, suddenly just became enamored with him, you know, and the way he handled it, see. And I said, “You have to do that in life—you have to be true to yourself. And don’t let anybody intimidate you.”  

As a senior here at Dartmouth, I wonder how different my college experience would have been had I adopted Ambassador Young’s advice: for while my positive memories far outweigh the turmoil, the times that I doubted myself; the times that I was made to feel less-than, and accepted my place there; the times I let myself be subservient to hostility—black and white—and regretted speaking out; I could, and should, have recognized the power of self-possession. My power is my tenacity; my place in the world is what I choose it to be; and my black manhood is to be defined by myself alone. 

In short: have compassion for the sick, but don’t hesitate to tell someone to go fuck themselves if they get in your way.

Ambassador Andrew Young is one of the most distinguished men of our time: A friend and confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Young helped achieve the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and was directly involved with The Voting Rights Act of 1965. He is the recipient of over 45 honorary degrees, including a degree from Dartmouth College; a recipient of both the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 and France’s Légion d’honneur; and an honorary Co-Chair of the World Justice Project, among many other distinctions and honors. 

Mouth is especially thankful to The Andrew Young Foundation for its amazing support.