The Common Good

Raising Black Boys in America: An Interview With Leroy Barber

Editor’s Note: On Saturday, July 13th, a jury ruled George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Leroy Barber, one of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices, sat down with author and blogger Margot Starbuck to discuss race, the church, and growing up black in America. This interview has been edited for length.

Margot Starbuck: What was it like for you growing up in West Philly? Were you aware of race issues?

Leroy Barber: I was from a very tight family, a great family, so I don’t think I ever recognized race significantly until I was in high school. Family was everything. I felt supported by mom, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. So the race piece of things didn’t come until later.

I went to a Catholic school that was in a suburban area of Pennsylvania. And that’s when I began to take notice of race — of differences in treatment, of expectations, things like that.That’s when I started to see that there was a difference between the city and the suburbs, between being a black teenager and my white counterparts. I noticed the differences in how I was treated and expectations on me.

MS: Was there a specific occasion that stands out for you?

LB: I really remember two instances.

One was being in a classroom and a teacher asking a question. It was a simple question: “What is dew?”

I raised my hand and I said, “It be on the leaves in the morning.”

And the class just went crazy in laughter. And I had no idea why. And I said it again, “It be on the leaves in the morning.”

I’m like, “What are you laughing about?” Then, just feeling extremely embarrassed about my dialect.

And then another incident was standing at a locker one morning and some white kid was mad at me, and comes up and calls me a nigger. And I remember just losing it. And wound up in the principle’s office to be suspended. I’m like, “Why am I getting suspended?“ But what he said did not trump me getting upset and wanting to fight him. Me wanting to fight him was the problem.

Those were two significant instances that I remember.

MS: What did you do with those, and other difficult encounters with white people?

LB: Once I graduated high school, I really made an effort to not be around white folks. Because I had no idea how to handle what I was going through. I couldn’t figure it out.

I remember having great relationships with people on the football team, and staying after school and going bowling with a bowling group, and being in a play in high school and really getting a lot out of that. The people I got to know outside of school, on a deeper level, those were great relationships. But I still didn’t know how to handle both of them. I still didn’t know what balance looked like.

MS: What do you mean?

LB: I didn’t know how, when something happened, to not be so angry. When that incident happened I was so angry, I just wanted to hurt that kid. And when the incident happened around my dialect and speech, I was so embarrassed and beat myself up for that. But those things didn’t outweigh the great relationships I had with people. 

MS: Let’s talk about the George Zimmerman verdict this week. Is there a way the church can be responding this week? Specifically, the white church?

LB: One, showing their disappointment and outrage at what happened. “I understand what you’re going through. I’m angry as well. I’m upset as well. I’m disappointed. And this is not okay.” That acknowledgment.

And then, listen. When someone’s hurt you should listen to them. If an African American said something and, in their hurt, or in their anger, or in their disappointment they make a sweeping statement, that’s not necessarily out of the heart — they’re just expressing some feelings. Let that lay there. Let that go. Over and over again there is a critique of every word that an upset, angry, or disappointed person says. You just don’t hold a person accountable for every word in those situations. You want to get to their heart. And if you don’t listen, you’ll never get to their heart. It’ll be a constant debate, back and forth, about things that don’t matter.

MS: Was there a response, in the aftermath, that touched you?

LB: I read Jim Wallis’ blog today and I was weeping. Because it was just out there. Jim just put it out there. He didn’t apologize for it. I called him and thanked him for that. I know Jim’s going to pay for that. He’s going to lose friends. It’s going to cost him.

MS: You have three sons. How have you equipped your sons to be black in America?

LB: The general overall rule [for engaging the world] that I’ve always [had for] my sons is to control yourself. Control yourself or someone else will control you. And that’s the base from where I teach my sons. If the police officer comes up to you, and they’re wrong, control yourself so that you — in that instance — won’t be controlled.  And that is just kind of a standard teaching I’ve had for my boys. Always, always, always control that.

And I think the other parts of that come from readings from Howard Thurman that have touched me in deep places. Howard Thurman says three things, in Jesus and the Disinherited:

One — God is on the side of the oppressed and the poor. Know that God is on your side.

Two — Dishonesty takes you out of the conversation. And if you live an honest life, if you have integrity, you can sit at the table. In areas of race, people look for holes in your character as excuses for you not to be at the table.

Three — Hate is useless. Don’t let hate sink into your soul, because hate will destroy you. And respond with love even if it’s hard.

So I try to teach my boys that, and raise them that way.

Leroy Barber is Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh and a participant in Sojourners’ “Emerging Voices” project.

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