Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver talks racism and his first heart-wrenching experience as a child hearing the “n” word. This is a fascinating and raw look into what life was like growing up as an African American. I’m sure in many areas around the world, life is still like this, or far worse.
It is my honor to welcome Congressman Cleaver back to discuss race issues. For our first interview with Congressman Cleaver on the difference between being a Mayor and a Congressman please Click Here.
Gabrielle Reilly: With the Neo Nazi man who shot at the Jewish centers this year, and the man who attempted to throw the firebomb in your building, have you ever really felt threatened before?
Congressman Cleaver: Well, I had a group that had threatened to kill me when I was mayor but I never took it seriously so my family and I went to Texas for our family reunion. The FBI had the Dallas police stay with me the entire time I was down there and it was driving me crazy. It was a group in Tennessee. I thought, you know, I mean anything can happen to anybody at any time, and I’m not a person who’s taken a lot of that stuff seriously. I guess I probably should.
Gabrielle Reilly: Yes, it’s just such a disgrace. It’s just hard to even imagine that mindset, you know? I was raised in Papua New Guinea for the first part of my life and my very first friend was a little local Papua New Guinean boy. We were like brother and sister. We would run everywhere. It didn’t even dawn on me that we were not the same color, it didn’t register. We were both just human beings.
Congressman Cleaver: The same thing happened to me with Stevie, except mine ended up in a bad experience. Down the alley from my home Stevie and his brother and his family lived. Stevie and I knew each other. I never knew a time when I didn’t know him. I’m three or four and we played in an open area, a few trees, and we had a little ditch. It was the perfect place for kids to play. We just played all the time. Then, it didn’t occur to me that in the first grade I went to another school and Stevie went to another school and we never…it didn’t register.
Then one day, I came home, I can never forget it because it’s so traumatic. I came home, changed clothes as I had to do to get out of my school clothes. I went out to meet Stevie because we always met to play. I walked out and we had stick horses so I had my horse and I’m waiting and I saw Stevie coming. He was walking, he didn’t have his stick horse and behind him was his older brother Lloyd. You know, I’m happy, I’m getting ready to play but then it was the first time I heard the “N” word… and it came out of the lips of Stevie.
Gabrielle Reilly: So he went to school and…
Congressman Cleaver: No, here’s what I think happened. Stevie had told me that his family was going to have a BBQ and he wanted me to come to the BBQ that Saturday, which in Texas is a big deal. You know, yeah I’ m going to the BBQ and I’ll never forget I went into the house and I told my mother. I said, “Stevie wants me to come to his BBQ Saturday.” My mother was doing something in the kitchen and she never said a word. Not one single word. My mother died in 1986, I still had never talked to her about it but I think Stevie went home and told his family that I was coming and somebody in his family, maybe it was his Uncle Joe or his father or somebody said, “What! Did you know he’s a “N”?” So, you know, after I heard the word I ran and we had an outhouse and I ran in and leaned up against the door and they started throwing rocks at it. Seemed like it was about six or seven hours, it was probably three minutes if that long. It was one of those life-changing moments. I’ve never forgotten it.
Gabrielle Reilly: Oh wow, that’s an awful story. Fortunately, my family wasn’t anything like that. In fact, in Papua New Guinea, everyone had live-in help there. My best friend Jerry’s mom was our house keeper and his dad was our security guard. They lived in a cottage in our backyard. My mum never had the heart to let Jerry’s Mum, Mundi, do the housework by herself, so it was always Mundi and my mum doing dishes together. So I would just pass these different colored legs standing side by side in solidarity and never think anything of it.
Congressman Cleaver: Yes, because it could be traumatic. I’m over it psychologically I think, but I will never forget it.
Gabrielle Reilly: Well, I’m so glad you interviewed with my friend Lord Taylor for his book on diversity. Lord Taylor is actually the first black Lord in the House of Lords.
Congressman Cleaver: Yes, I have been to London before. The Black Caucus invited me over to London when there was a campaign to force the government to allow city elections and mayoral elections in London, because they were appointed. The Prime Minister was appointing the Mayor of London. So, I went over and campaigned in London with a group of people who call themselves the Black Caucus. However, they were Caribbean, Brits, Afro British citizens, and Asians, Arabs, all under that banner. It was the first time that I had seen that in London. Of course, they won. I think the Lord Mayor of London is still appointed, but the Mayor of London, of the city, is elected.
Gabrielle Reilly: Yes, Lord Taylor’s single Jamaican Mum, carried him through the streets when he was a baby after they arrived in England fresh off the boat. On all the hotels and restaurants back then “No blacks, no Catholics, no dogs” there was boldly written on the doors. So to rise to be a Lord when so much was against him, was really something. Actually, Lord Taylor did a great interview with me on hope for people. Hope is everything when the odds are stacked against you like that!
Well thanks so much for the interview, it has been fascinating!
For our first interview with Congressman Cleaver on the difference between being a Mayor and a Congressman please Click Here. You can follow us on Twitter for an update of Congressman Cleaver’s next interview with us.