Interviewer: Judy Richardson
Production Team: B
Interview Date: December 12, 1988
Camera Rolls: 2081-2083
Sound Rolls: 237
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Paula Giddings, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 12, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Tell me why you went to Howard? What were expecting to get out of it? You had mentioned something about the Freedom Rides.
I grew up in Yonkers, New York and grew up in a predominantly White neighborhood in Yonkers.
Why did you go to Howard University? What were you looking for? You mentioned the Freedom Ride.
I grew up on Yonkers, New York. And in a predominantly White neighborhood, feeling that sense of isolation that so many Black people felt in that period of time. Yonkers was always, a, a racist city. And I remember from the very beginning, name calling and that kind of thing that happened. To the point that even my mother had to go to school to give a civics lesson to the young children there because of everything that was going on. I remember always wondering the reasons behind all this. I think that, that kind of questioning was more important to me even than actually what was happening. And that became particularly intense by 1961. And I remember this very clearly. It was the first thing I really remember in terms of the movement and everything that was going on. And it was the Freedom Rides of 1961. And the thing I guess that was so compelling about it was, not only because I was then 13 years-old, so I was old enough to begin to get a sense of things. Ah, but again those questions. What would make this happen? What would create that kind of violence? What gave those young people, I think I related to it because there were young people in my generation. What gave them that courage to continue on those rides at the expense, maybe, of their, of their lives? And when I think back. I think it separated me from even a lot of the Blacks that I began, that I knew in Yonkers. No one seemed, else seemed to be asking those questions. And I was determined and I don't know if I intellectualized it or had a great racial analysis in this period. But I knew I needed to find a community of like minded Black people. And this certainly was very much on my mind in 1965 when it was time for me to go to school, to college. And, ah, at that time, the UNCF, if I remember correctly, had a, it was interesting they had a program to help Black students get into predominantly White schools as well. Because this was the period when White schools.
Say United Negro College.
Why did you go to Howard? What were you looking for?
I was looking for a community.
If you could start with, I grew up in Yonkers.
You want to do it all over again but compress it? OK. Ah, well let's, ask me the question again.
Why did you go to Howard and what were you looking for?
Well, I grew up in Yonkers, New York in a predominantly White neighborhood, feeling very isolated for, for many reasons. And I really wanted to go to a place where there was a like-minded Black community. And I thought Howard would be that place. Ah, I had been very affected, I think growing up, by so much that was going on around me, particularly those Freedom Rides in 1961, that made me ask a lot of questions and made me curious to find out so much more and so many things that I certainly wasn't getting in my own school, in my own experience in Yonkers. So Howard, I was determined to, to go to Howard in '65.
When you got there, can you remember, you mentioned Arthur Davis for example, what gave you a sense of Blackness there.
I was surprised when I first went to Howard. I mean I expected it to be embroiled in this political ferment because so much had happened of course by 1965. Ah, that was not true for the most part. But there were some very important people that I met, students and professors, ah, who were involved in all kinds--things going on, the things I was interested in. Tony Gittens certainly was one who I worked with on the newspaper as a, as a freshman. He taught me a great deal. Adrienne Manns was another one. And I had classes like Arthur Davis' class. And I think it was called then Negro Literature at that time. But it was the very first time that I had read in a systematic way, Black literature and Black writers. And Arthur was absolutely wonderful because he also knew so many of those writers. He had been involved in the renaissance during the '20s and had all kinds of stories. He's a wonderful teacher. And it opened a whole new world for me. So that was a very, very important experience and certainly is one when I look back which had a great deal to do with my, with the path that I took afterwards.
Did you find that was generally true? What were you missing in terms of what you were looking for at Howard?
Howard had not caught up with the movement. And I'm, talking about even in terms of its curriculum. We were still, a lot of things we weren't able to study. Ah, there were efforts to get, to be able to study jazz for example. It was not considered, ah, ah, a traditional discipline and it wasn't considered a legitimate one at Howard at that time. And we're talking about the mid '60s. I remember very, ah, ah, clearly a course in literary criticism. And this was the period when we were still studying the, sort of the modernist movement and what was happening, Clint Brooks and all those kinds of people. And of course that movement was very, very abstract and very, very intellectual and sophisticated and very, very White. And there was nothing in there that spoke to me. And I remember rebelling against it. Thank goodness, there was a class like Arthur Davis' class who talked about the writers who were dealing with the folk tradition. He talked about Langston Hughes for example, who despite writing during that modernist period, refused to acquiesce to all of that and was still writing for Black people. So there was at least that balance. But for the most part, none of my courses, ex--
Misinformation on the last reel, the 2080 was slated 2081.
This is really 2081--
Paula, tell me why you had problems with Freshman Assembly?
Well, Freshman Assembly was one of those programs that all Freshman were supposed to, we had to go to, we didn't have any choice. Ah, and they always dragged in these speakers or some kind of cultural program that, again, seemed very, very, very irrelevant to us. You know the mission, the traditional mission of Black schools has been not only to educate Blacks but to sort of acculturate them and socialize them for the wider industrial order. And those programs symbolized that. So here you would have to drag into these, to this Freshman Assembly to hear someone give us a very Booker T. Washington kind of talk, ah, up from slavery kind of talk. And they were, they were dull and they were offensive in many ways.
How were they offensive?
The ah, can I blow my nose?
Why did you find Freshman Assembly so insulting?
Well, here we were for the most part, here we were in the middle of a Civil Rights Movement. So many important things were happening all around us. Nothing was being explained in terms of the curriculum of Howard University, nothing was being talked about. It was business as usual going on. And here, and in the midst of this were these assemblies that had nothing to do with what was going on. I mean this was a period of tremendous fermer, ferment, things were changing all the time, all the time. And we'd walk in and hear someone talk about how to dress, how to speak properly, how to fit into some other kind of occupation or job that had nothing to do with Black people or helping Black people out, except maybe a wage. So it was a very, ah, we, we found that, most of it found it very, very offensive. And it wasn't the kind of education, in my generation particularly, in those earlier too, in this period of time. I mean we went partly to get some kind of intellectualized experience of what was happening. Ah, in terms of the arts, in terms of, of literature, in terms of social sciences, of political sciences, etc., etc--We might not have understood it so clearly of what, what we were looking for and searching for but we knew Freshman Assembly and the rest of those things weren't it.
Talk about the Black conciousness movment in the sense in the arts, and did it have an effect on the arts.
I think so. At, at first in the beginning.
How did this growing Black consciousness begin to be reflected in the literary magazine for example?
Well, I remember in 1966, I began to edit, in '66, '67 year, I began to edit the literary magazine. And I inherited the magazine called the Promethean, named after the god, the greek god of fire. And the work in it was, it was, some very important work in it. We had also, ah, ah, essays and poems from professors like.
Please start over again.
OK, OK--would you ask the question again.
How did the growing by consciousness movement begin to be reflected in the literary magazine?
I was the editor of the literary magazine in 1966, '67. And I inherited a magazine called The Promethean, named after the greek god of fire. And there were some very good things in the Promethean but there, it was not yet reflective of the racial militancy that was happening. Remember '66 is Black Power, '67 we're talking about separation. Ah, and in '66 there was very important work in it, Sterling Brown for example, his poem Confessions of Nat Turner, Remembering Nat Turner it was called. Arthur Davis had a piece in it. Some other people did. We had a print of Henry O'Tanner in it, which is kind of benign, of course a fine artist. By '67 you saw the changes. By '67 we called it the Afro American Review. And I remember the introduction by the president of the liberal arts student council is Louis Myers, who talked about the liberation struggle. And this is really a stark contrast just to the year before. Ah, talked about the role of writers, now in that struggle. And this was something rather new that we were all beginning to talk about. Certainly in 1967 was a very important year in that that was the year of the famous Fisk Writers Conference that really launches the new Black poetry movement as a movement. At that conference where the people, they call the young Tur--Turks like Nicky Giovani who was then a student a Fisk, Sonya Sanchez had come into that meeting. Haki Madhubuti, then Don Lee, come to the meeting. And there were also older writers like GwenGwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker and Dudley Randall. And what had happened was a kind of a passing of the torch in certain ways. Of the younger people demanding that the role of writers be different and that their poetry was different. I remember Gwen(dolyn) Brooks, ah, later on, writing that she felt like a negro being coldly respected at that conference. Ah, Hakai, in fact created the rural press in that same year.
We're not going to be able to do this.
OK, that's too much. All right. All right. Rolling and speed. Mark it.
Where are we starting from?
Well, just Compress the story, who was there and then how it affected you.
So, we're going to start with the writers' conference.
That's right Talk about the writer's conference and how it affected you personally and how you brought it back to Howard.
In 1967, all of at Howard were very much influenced by a very important writer's conference that was organized by John Killens at Fisk University in which people like Nicky Giovani and Sonya Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti spoke. They had recently been published by Dudley Randall, who then owned Broadside Press, and that was part of this whole Black power movement was reflected in that conference. That was, had a great affect on, on writing and on the writing at Howard, the students at Howard and the literary magazine. Now the Afro American Review. We looked at the role of writers very differently. You know, until the late '60s, writers, Black writers for the most part, even though they were very good and racially conscious, for the most part wrote for White people and White audiences. The role now was changing with the function of the Black writer was. And so did the material itself. So, by the time we had something called the Afro American Review, there was a great deal of, of critical analysis of Black politics, of Black poetry and exclamation points and bold face and a very different sensibility in the magazine.
How did it affect you personally?
Well, you, again, you just felt that there was.
I had, a, a tremendous sense, first of all and to be honest with you, I don't know how much I analyzed it then, but you had a idea that things were opening up, that there was something very new, that there was new sense of pride certainly, a new interest in Black cultural roots. And certainly a new idea about, remember this is also the period when people are commemorating Malcolm X who was assassinated in 1965, the first person, and we were all affected by, by confronting the situation. Not just acquiescing to it and being the good negro that the Freshman Assembly asked you to be. But confronting a lot of these things. Ah, ex, expressing anger, ah, expressing, not apologizing anymore for talking about Black people exclusively, of trying to understand the culture, understand the politics that would be liberating.
Let's talk about the Robin Gregory campaign. What was it usually like on the campaign for homecoming queen, and how was hers different?
Well the traditional homecoming campaign was quite a ritual. Ah, each sorority, fraternity for example had their candidates and other organizations had candidates as well. And I remember that during the days of the campaign, each candidate would appear on campus, at certain times of the day, of the afternoon. And this meant people, all the candidates of course had to get new wardrobes. They were people of latest fashions. They usually come rolling in in a car, latest model convertible. And everything was color coordinated. And I remember working on the campaign, you always had to think of what color was the car, then the dress had to match the car and the flowers had to match the dress that matched the car. So it was all very elaborate and then there would be a demonstration around, talking about the candidate. Most of the, the women were, ah, certainly by western standards, I mean the most attractive woman was selected. It didn't always mean that they were light skinned women with straight hair in that traditional western sense. But they were all very, very attractive in a traditional way. I'll never forget the year, none of us will forget the year that Robin Gregory was also running for homecoming queen. And of course, Robin Gregory had no car or and always looked sharp but certainly not those elaborate dresses. She had an Afro which of course was the, was the statement that she made physically. And she was always flanked by two, very handsome men, very serious, very well dressed in the way that the Fruit of Islam was dressed with the bow ties, very serious. And they always had their arms folded and would look straight ahead while Robin talked. And Robin talked about the movement. Robin talked about Black politics. Robin was not the traditional homecoming queen candidate.** She would also go around to the dorms in the evenings which was something very, very different and still talking about this. People who were, by that time, were prepared, were much more prepared I think. We, ah, I know.
Say how you were affected.
Oh, OK, All right. ROLL OUT ON 2081] hh
What impact did the campaign of Robin Gregory have on you personally?
I remember being very excited about her campaign.
Say Robin Gregory.
Ah, I remember being very excited about Robin Gregory's campaign. I'd always felt that there was something wrong with that, that other kind of, of, of traditional ritual that was going on. But at the same time I had divided loyalties because I was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and we had our own candidate who was a very good friend of mine and who I worked on the campaign with. So we had these, ah, and many of us had these, these feelings back and forth. But all of us with divided loyalties or not felt very excited about, about Robin's campaign and about what it symbolized, not just in terms of politics, what it mean in terms of what women should be doing as well, the role of women, it was very, very important to us.
Can you just talk a little about that.
Well, Howard had been, I remember this, being confronted with the kind of situation where men, ah, when you passed by men, especially as an underclassman, as a freshman, sophomore, they would actually give you a grade. I mean, to you, you know, they would talk among themselves and say, Well that's an A or that's a B. There was, ah, a lack of respect in, in, in lots of instances. And there was a, a, a terrible degrading sense a, about all of that. Ah, and what Robin did, was not only in terms again of race but also talking about the role of women and what they should be doing and talking about and being taken very, very seriously, not just, not because of any physical attributes but because of her mind. And this I, I think was as important as, as the racial aspect of her campaign.
If you could talk also about the crowning, what was it like? You're sitting in assembly, again personally, and the homecoming queen is about to be announced, what is it like? Set the stage as if we have no film.
I remember very much the, the evening when the homecoming queen was crown. And I was in Crampton Auditorium, which was filled to the hilt. For the last time all the candidates were announced and went up on, and, the stage in, in the auditorium. And the way that the, the whole evening was set was very, very dramatic. What would happen after that is that the lights went down and all the candidates went behind the curtain, back of the stage. The ballot was, actually secret balloting, so no one in the auditorium knew who was going to win. And the idea was that there was a, ah, there was a throne, a high backed throne, ah, with, with its back to the audience, behind the curtain, and there was a revolving stage, so whoever would win, whoever would win, would sit on that throne and then slowly revolve toward the audience. Ah, the lights went down. The candidates went back. Then you heard the curtains open. And you heard the crank of the revolving stage begin. And as the stage revolved and turned around toward the audience, the lights began to come up at the same time. Well, before you saw Robin, you saw the way the lights hit, cast a silhouette on the curtains and you saw the silhouette of her Afro before you saw her. Well, the auditorium exploded. And everybody exploded. Ah, it was, it was a wonderful moment. People started jumping up and screaming and some were raising their fists, ah, then spontaneously a chant began, the chant was umgawa Black power, umgawa Black power, and, ah, a chain was created. People started to, to march to it, to the rhythm of umgawa Black power and there was a line that went all the way around the auditorium and more and more people joined the line. I did it to as it, as it went around the auditorium. And finally out the door and into the streets of Washington, D.C., pass the campus and, and, still chanting umgawa Black power and that was really the launching of that movement at Howard.**
If you can talk about, the takeover has now happened and you have come into the Administration Building for the first time. What is it like going into the Administration Building?
I remember walking into the Administration Building for the first time after the takeover. And the excitement was, obviously a great deal of excitement in the air. But more than that I was so impressed by the things, how things were operating there and structured there. For example, students had taken over the switchboard and it was running more efficiently than it had ever had under the administration. There was a microphone right in the front on that first large floor where there were announcements being made. Ah, of course you had to have ID to get in and out and that was very carefully monitored. There were separate floors for men--
Describe what you when you first go into the Administration Building.
When I first went into the, the first day I went into the Administration Building after the takeover was, was really something. I, I'll never forget it. Ah, it was very, very well organized. It was one of the most organized movements I have seen, even since. You had to have have ID, of course, to get in and out only students were allowed or those people knew were allowed in, you walked in to the administration building. The switch board now was taken over by students and was running more efficiently than it ever had before. There was a microphone set up in the front where, there were ah, announcements being made, and different student representatives had different things to say, and so everyone would here it. There was a whole sound system so everyone could hear what was happening. There were separate floors for men and women, so people who were spending the night, sleeping over, or who wanted to change clothes etc. So they had one floor for women and one floor for men up in the upper floors. We had the best meals. Of course, every school cafeteria, and Howard was no exception, had the worst meals in the world. But a lot of restauranteurs and others in the city were sympathetic to the takeover of Howard. So we'd get these wonderful turkey, whole turkeys were coming in. People were eating three meals a day there and delicious food. Ah, there were, there were times, ah, specified times when there would be clean up time and people were assigned to mop floors and keep everything straight and clean. So it was run, it was running very, very efficiently. And that whole sense of, I guess I, that's when I really consciously knew I had found that Black community that I had been searching for. Because you were sitting there in the Administration Building, all of us certainly were very excited about what we had done. Very, very serious though about what we had done. The proposals and all were very thought out of what we wanted the school to do and the administration to do and what kind of courses that we wanted. And felt very committed to carrying it through and felt very good about ourselves as well. I guess it was a kind of right of passage into adulthood in a way, as well.
Tell me about the cultural things that were going in, the gospels singers were, and it was the first time they could be on campus and maybe some of the things that were going on with --
So many things were now able to be expressed that we couldn't express before. Ah, Howard never liked, ah, Gospel Music, official, in the official way. And I remember a group of, of.
I'm sorry. If you could say that again but tell me why.
Ah, Gospel Music, where do we start?
Say it again.
What was the question?
Howard never liked Gospel Music.
Howard officially as, a, as with jazz, didn't like Gospel Music, it wasn't considered legitimate music. It was improper music. It wasn't the kind of thing that they thought that they should be, be teaching or allowing their young colored students to have. And, so I remember those, the, the great feeling of freedom during this period. There was a group of young women who would sing gospel songs, who would walk around the campus and perhaps pose at a tree and begin singing this wonderful, wonderful music. I remember in the Fine Arts building there had been this large portrait of a ballerina, of a White ballerina, ah, ah, in one of those positions, those dance positions, and someone had written beneath it, Wake up and live, you know. It was that whole, it was that entire sense of things, ah, that, that had changed. We had, we had created a sea(?) change in that university.
How did this takeover change you personally?
Well, in lots of ways, certainly one of the things.
The changeover, ah, the, not the changeover, what is it called?
I'm sorry. Start again.
The takeover and the other and the activities of Howard around that time did have a, a great deal of impact on me. Ah, I guess one of the most iimmediate, was I got an Afro. And I always had very thick hair, so I had a rather large Afro. I always remember coming home that first time with and Afro. And my mother who tends not to be emotional, just sat down and cried bitter tears, because I also had the large beaded earrings and the fake fur coat and boots, and it was something. And it was true the rest of my friends as well, who went home. We all traded stories later of what the, what happened when we went home and the reaction. Ah, but the most important thing was what, how it had affected certainly my thinking and what I wanted to do when I grew up. Ah, certainly that whole concept of the role of the writer that we talked a great deal about in terms of the literary magazine had a lasting impact on me I think in, in, in my career. Certainly I felt a much better sense of self. I was not, I was reared in a way that I always had a good sense of self. But again that there were these questions that were always nagging at me and many of them were answered. Ah, I thought I had more answers than I actually had. But at least in that, that phase of my development, I felt that I had learned a great deal about myself. I was certainly very, very political, very, very militant in, in that sense. Ah, and it was that militancy and perspective I brought to Random House where I, my first job after school in a, in a publishing house. And that's a story unto itself.
Cut. Thats fine.
My mother will die.
What affect did the takeover and all this ferment of activity have on you?
I guess the most obvious and the first thing that comes to mind was that I got an Afro. I went with straightened hair and came out with an Afro. And I'll never forget the first time I went home to see my mother who, ah, is not an emotional woman and is a very cool and collected woman but when I opened the door and she saw my Afro along with the beaded earrings and the fake fur coat and the, and the, and the pants. She, the poor woman just broke down and cried. I remember her sitting at that dining room table and just put her head down and cried very bitter tears. A number of my friends of course, I remember us trading reactions, when we, a number of us had gotten Afros and gone home. When we came back to school, one of my friends said, that her mother thought that next she'd probably be on dope since she had gotten an Afro that was the next, seq, that was the only logical thing where she could go after that. So, that had happened. But more importantly I, I got a very--new sense of self a new sense of my Black self, of, in terms of culture in terms of politics in terms of the right to demand certain things. The right to feel good about your self. And I had always had a, a good sense of myself but not necessarily a clear sense of myself as a Black person, and I think that was the important thing. And it was something that I think I was searching for, now that I think about. And Certainly I found that at Howard. Certainly as a person who was always interested in writing, all of the debates and all of the, the editing and the selection of work, ah, about the new poetry movement and all that was going on. Certainly the idea of what the role of a writer should be, was formed at Howard, what good literature should be in Arthur Davis' class which I learned was formed at Howard. And that certainly stayed with me. I mean certainly that's a very important legacy that stayed with me throughout my career.
Talk about Robin Gregory's coronation and becoming queen and being in that audience, what was it like?
I remember being in Crampton Auditorium the evening that the homecoming queen was selected and coronated. And the place of course was filled to capacity and there was tremendous excitement in the room. I remember very precise, Oh. God.
Start all over again? OK. Ah, I remember being in Crampton Auditorium the evening that the homecoming queen was coronated. It was filled to capacity. It was the event of the season after all. And there was excitement in the room. I remember all the candidates going up front for the last time and then going toward the back of the stage. And how it worked was, of course it was a actually secret ballot of who would win. And we would not know until we would see the winning homecoming queen sit in a throne on the stage and it was a revolving stage so the back of the throne was to the audience and the stage would slowly revolve.
You're in Crampton Auditorium, its homecoming night, what happened?
I remember being in Crampton Auditorium the evening that the homecoming queen would be coronated. And of course the place was filled to capacity. After it was the event of the season and there was electricity in the air. And, I'll never forget that moment. That moment when the homecoming queen, the one was was elected. And of course it was secret ballot so no one knew who it was. And she would sit, she sat in the high back throne, the back was to.
OK You're in Crampton Auditorium and its electric, what's happening?
I remember being in Crampton Auditorium the evening of the homecoming queen coronation and of course the auditorium was filled to capacity. I mean after all it was the event of the season. And there was electricity in the air. And I'll never forget the moment when we knew who the homecoming queen was going to be. I had been a secret ballot of course and no one knew beforehand. But what we all saw on the stage was the throne, high backed throne, ah, and the homecoming queen sat in the throne, on top of a revolving state that would revolve slowly toward the audience. When the queen was seated in the throne the lights went down, still no one knew who it was and as it began, the stage began to revolve, the lights began to come up slowly and what we saw, even before we saw Robin's face, was the silhouette of her Afro. And it was, everyone just stood up and screamed. I'll never forget that moment. And they began spontaneously to shout and chant, umgawa Black power, umgawa Black power, and finally a line was started where people would march to the rhythm of umgawa Black power and move all around Cramptom Auditorium. It was, it was a line that people would join as it went, as it circled around and I joined it too. And we finally circled all the way around and then out the door and across the campus and into Washington, D.C.