The Outlook Interview: Randall Robinson Talks to John Greenya; Randall Robinson, 44, is the organizer of the burgeoning year-long protest movement outside the South Africa embassy against apartheid. Born in Richmond, and educated in its public schools, Robinson has a degree in political science from Virginia Union University and a law degree from the Harvard Law School. Following his graduation from law school, Robinson spent five years working in Roxbury, Mass., first as an attorney for the Boston Legal Assistance Project and then as the administrative director of the Community Development Division of the Roxbury Multi-Service Center. He moved to Washington in 1975, to work in the office of Missouri Democrat William Clay. Following a brief stint as a staff attorney with The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, he became the administrative assistant to Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.) a man Robinson calls, "a lonely soldier for a long time in Congress on the issue of South Africa." In 1976, following the Congressional Black Weekend, a new black American organization was formed to lobby for Africa and the Caribbean. It was called TransAfrica, and Randall Robinson was named its executive director, a post he has held ever since. On November 21, 1984 -- Thanksgiving Eve -- Robinson, Dr. Mary Frances Berry, and D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy staged a sit-in at the South African embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW. It was intended as a symbolic protest against the racial policy -- apartheid -- of the South African government and the U.S. government's related policy (known as "constructive engagement.") That sit-in spawned a movement that has spread to more then two dozen cities and scores of college campuses. Over 3,000 people have been arrested, including 23 members of Congress and the mayors of several major cities. Robinson is divorced and shares custody with his former wife of their two children, a daughter Anike, 14, and a son, Jebari, 10.
Q: You have mentioned that you never saw the inside of a bowling alley or even a pizza until you left home.
A: I'd never seen a bowling alley and I had no sense of what a pizza tasted like. I suppose there were pizza parlors in Richmond, but they were far removed from our neighborhoods. The white community, of course, was as culturally deprived as we in the sense that they knew as little about us as we knew about them. There's a penalty borne on both sides. I hadn't seen a bagel until I got to Harvard Law School, and thought it to be a doughnut when I saw it. I was surprised by the consistency of it more than anything.
We had grown up under our own very American apartheid. It stays with you. When I went to South Africa in 1976, I got a good sense of how the file drawers of your own previous experience get opened. Some of these things you think you've closed, to some extent -- at least the most painful, searing evidences of it. Then when you see it so brutally applied as in South Africa, it pulls the scabs off your own old wounds.
In Richmond my brother Max and I used to go down to the White House of the Confederacy and throw rocks at it on Sunday. Then we would go and sit down in Grant's Drug Store and wait until we were asked to leave. I don't know if we ever mustered courage to defy, but we tested frequently when we were little boys. I suppose that was done across the South, because a sense of self cannot survive -- cannot accept and remain in good health -- that kind of discrimination and rejection. So the rocks we threw were important survival efforts.
Q: When you were growing up in Richmond what did you think you'd do with your life?
Q: I thought I'd commit it to public service. That has its own selfish element. When you grow up under circumstances of segregation and that kind of humiliation, you're forced to endure. It becomes a very laudable undertaking to fight for the disadvantaged because you count yourself among that number. I can remember the pain and the suffering so vividly and wondering as a child how human beings could do this to each other. I remember as if it were yesterday the lynching of Emmitt Till in Mississippi. (That was) in the middle '50s I think. I was about his age, he was a young teen-ager visiting his relatives and was lynched shortly after the rioting in Mississippi.
I remember my own feelings as a child, my view of my parents being brave and trying to survive, trying to be appropriate models under model-destructive circumstances. I wondered how any people on earth could be as vicious as whites who rendered us faceless. I remember when I was 14, I delivered groceries to the home of a white family and hearing them talk in the kitchen about the most intimate details of their lives as if I weren't there. They would remember nothing of it. I remember all of it.
I think out of that kind of experience interest was cultivated in thousands of blacks to do public service of one kind or another. And out of that has grown my abhorrence of apartheid. I know something of what that kind of thing feels like although my experience nowhere near compares to the experience of black South Africans.
Q: Was Richmond a little late coming out of its history of racial discrimination compared to other cities?
A: Richmond came later than Washington, but it came sooner than much of the South. The South worsened as you went down. Richmond did not have as much brutality as the rest of the deeper South did or as many parts of Virginia -- places like Lynchburg and Martinsville. But it was so completely segregated then that I never knew whites in my life before I was a grown man. I never knew a white person. We saw whites. We had a white insurance man that would come to collect. Or you'd see whites in downtown stores but everything was separate -- schools. I never sat in a class next to white until I was 26 years old at Harvard Law School.
Q: Your high-school experience was totally in a black school?
A: Totally. And that (was) from '55 to '59, five years after Brown v. Board of Education. There was never any great craving for integration on the part of blacks, certainly not in my case. I never had any great desire to go to school with whites simply to go to school with whites. We simply could not tolerate the insult of law-based rejection. I do recall being angry about not having the right to go where I wanted to go. And angry about the kinds of facilities made available to the white and not available to black schools. All those things were part of the insult, but I don't think blacks after all of what had gone on, had any eagerness to socially integrate with whites. After all, it is appropriate, sensible and even healthy to be angry in the face of such an affront. Part of that anger helps you to stand upright, because if you're not, it's turned inward and it stoops your emotion and my parents would never allow that.
Q: Why did you go to Harvard Law School?
A: I had a difficult time puzzling out exactly what I wanted to do. There was, of course, the war between art and tedium. I remember first wanting to be an architect -- involved with the creative side of things. I enjoyed law school somewhat, but never seriously considered practicing law because the whole process simply bored me to death.
I always wanted to take the time and find the courage to puzzle out what my niche would be. Just like that line from the Frost poem, "Two roads diverged in the woods and I took the one less traveled by and it's made all the difference." I enjoy what I do and I enjoy the people I'm doing it with. It's not a job, it's a passion. It's fraught with a lot of frustration, but an awful lot of fulfillment and (it) gives one a second family because you've got a chance to work with very solid, bright, committed, hardworking people. In addition, it proves that one as rusty as a 44- year-old can cut a path to keep the ideals of one's youth alive through middle age.
Q: When did this connection with Africa and the continent, your roots so to speak, enter your life?
A: My father was a history teacher at Armstrong High School in Richmond and we had a book-cluttered house. I had a fascination with the question of how our people came here, what parts of Africa we came from, how we made the passage, how many we lost, how we suffered, who caused it, what our kin were doing now there. Their struggle, our struggle, its connections. I had some rather adolescent appreciation of this very early on in my life. My parents were a part of it, particularly my father who in the midst of all of this oppression in the South, always had good things to say about Africa, and always thought globally, always had an interest in geopolitics.
Q: Do you consider yourself a black leader?
A: No, I don't. And the question disturbs me somewhat inasmuch as only the black community is assigned leaders. The native American community in addition, perhaps. But other communities have scientists, politicians, artists, whatever. Advocates of one kind or another of people who work competently in their fields and, of course, as a result of that, influence public policy. The black community is often subject to some attempt by white media and many of the white community to consolidate it under the leadership of a handful of people.
Across the black community now we have people trained in many areas, to whom we have mutual deference within our community -- as in any other. In addition, I think people are essentially self-led.
Q: What do you think your kids' lives will be like?
A: They don't have to face the problems that I've had to face, but they have to face a lot of problems that I didn't have to face. I'm terribly troubled by a culture of drugs that I didn't have to contend with when I was a child. It simply wasn't there. I never saw marijuana when I was in high school, didn't even know what it looked like. And our crime rates are up. We had glass panes in our front doors and no one saw or ever heard of (any) kind of an alarm system on our house.
They have to contend with racism, yes. But it's somewhat less virulent than when I was a child. They're not nearly as poor as I was when I was a child and they have more reason to have a healthier self- image than we had. We really had to scratch and have real grit about who we were to plow through the onslaught of what we were subjected to.
Q: What about their connections with Africa?
A: They've been to Africa. He was 5 and she was 9 when they went. As a matter of fact, my daughter was conceived in Tanzania. I tell her she was made in Africa.
Q: Did your parents pressure you?
A: My parents never suggested to me what they preferred I become. I don't think you should press children into dysfunction because they can't achieve essentially for you what you want them to achieve for you. Because you stand at one point further along the road you can see horizons that are not yet in view to them and if your children love and respect you, they defer to you on that. Beyond that you shouldn't use credits by pressing the children to achieve beyond themselves or trying to live through the children, meaning that success ultimately means happiness. If you are not happy, then you are by definition unsuccessful.
My parents just wanted us to be what we wanted to be. Sometimes that's another kind of burden on a child, to cast around and try to identify that. It's important at the same time to encourage your children to pursue dreams that are realistic. In pedestrian societies like Richmond you didn't have many people who aspired to the arts, to write. Everything about the structure of the South was set up to lecture us in a sense on our "innate inferiority." Nonetheless, you had models for professional careers -- lawyers, teachers. But the rather unconventional careers, you simply didn't see much -- people who are able to fashion out of their capacities creative lives and unconventional undertakings. All of the Robinson children have had unconventional careers. It must have something to do with the kind of discretion that we were charged with exercising by our parents.
My parents are very able people who achieved a good deal more than they were allowed to. But both of my parents were college products and we lived in the most abject kind of poverty, in a flat. I thought wealth meant you had your toggle switch for the lights on the wall, because we had to grope for the string in the room and make oil fires in the separate rooms in the morning. The whole process of killing rodents and all that stuff was a part of life.
Q: Was this an apartment or house?
A: It was an apartment house in Central Richmond. On that block were the people from every imaginable walk. The house of prostitution and teachers -- you had the range of people forced together by economic circumstances. We were very poor. I'm sure it has something to do with what I've done with my life. It's a bitter memory of all the pain endured in the South. All of the humiliations that parents you respected were forced to suffer.
Q: Without parents like yours, what kind of life would you have expected to lead?
A: I recall starting school with David Carter, Walter Billups, a range of people, Chicken Russell, all of us going evenly well in the primary grades, perhaps up until the fifth or sixth grade, many doing better than I. There's no question in my mind that we were capable, notwithstanding our various backgrounds. But then the toll was taken on those who did not have the advantage that a few of us had. They began to fall away. A good many dropped out. Chicken is in Virginia State Penitentiary for murder.
Q: How did you get your news when you were growing up? Through normal channels of communication? I just wondered if there were any secret sources of information, any network.
A: We always got black publications, Jet, Ebony, The Afro-American. And there were books One, "100 Years of Lynching," just a whole chronicle of it. I, as a child, used to wonder. I'd been so hopeful about the nature of humankind and optimistic before I understood that people have about equal capacities for good and ill. I recall seeing pictures of lynchings that were terrible enough to give you scars forever. It was devastating enough to see pictures of hooded figures hanging around or regarding a black corpse, but worse still, to see women and children laughing with a kind of air of celebration, eating popcorn and celebrating. It made you wonder about the nature of humankind and what awful things people are really capable of. It had an extraordinary impact on me.
Perhaps the road to lowered expectation begins earlier in life for some than for others. I don't mean one's own expectations, I mean expectations for other people and what they are capable of. It doesn't leave you a very trusting person. You see a kind of naivete in the face of the fuzzy-cheeked, well-off suburban white kid. In the black soul, naivete dies pretty young.