Tue, 06/09/2020

Voices on Race in America

Here are stories from some of our interviewees who shared their experiences and thoughts on racism and the fight against it in our country. 

“It was impossible to live a normal, correct life, because there were so many people who had no respect for black people, who thought that we were a minor race, that we were stupid, we were lazy, we were slovern, and they reacted to us in that way. It made no difference that these things were not true, necessarily, any more than in any other race, but that was the brand that we were carrying. So we had to suffer the things that people did to us, that were not things that people should do to you. I have not had many trying experiences - because nobody does that to me - I don't care what your ethnic background is and your opinion is. There's only so much that you can do to me, there's ever only been so much that you will do, and then I have a need to react.” - Della Reese

"[My mother] was born in Birmingham, Alabama... and when growing up, my mom would send me South every summer to Birmingham. She would put me on the train at Penn Station in New York and it would be a two-and-a-half-day trip to Birmingham... One of the more memorable things I recall about that trip South was when the train stopped in Washington, D.C. and a conductor came through the train and told all the black people on the train, “All you all, move to the back of the train, to a separate car.” And even to this day, in retrospect, I look out and I see the nation’s capital, the Washington Monument, and I’m being told in the name of the preservation of democracy to move to the back of the train. And that stayed with me and it stays with me to this day - the incongruity of passing the nation’s capital and then being told to move to the back of the train. - John Amos

“Before I was on [the dance/talent show Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club], there had been an African American boy who tap danced and had won the contest [and a car]. The sponsors decided that they did not want to give a car to another African American kid. It was down to me and a trumpet player, and the trumpet player won. I watched from the stage – they fixed the [audience applause] meter when it was my turn so the clock couldn’t move." - Leslie Uggams

"With black actors and actresses, we not only have to go through the filter of, 'Are you black rather than white?' it's 'What shade of black are you?' You’re 'too dark' or you’re 'too light.' They only deal with the middle of the spectrum. And some of our biggest stars, like Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o, have been wonderfully eloquent talking about the problems that pertain to actresses who are labeled 'too dark.' And in my case, there really hasn’t been anybody to talk about the business of being 'too light.' If you are so light that you photograph like white, then you really have a hard time. They tell you you’re not properly representative of your race. What is really bothering them are the optics, because it looks like you’ve got a black man working with a white woman. They’re so afraid they’re going to offend the sensibilities of the white audience." - Ellen Holly

"I can’t say that I joined [the Civil Rights Movement]. I was born into it. … Our country could be one of the greatest countries that God ever imagined were it not for racism and the feelings of superiority by some of its members." - Ruby Dee

"My father would go and march in civil rights marches, and we understood the connection between what was happening in the Civil Rights Movement and what might happen to us in our lives... I was born in 1955 and I came of age being aware of news in the ‘60s. We were watching civil rights marches and space shots and assassinations and war all unfold in black and white on our little TV set. I was very conscious of the world being this incredibly crazed place that demanded explanation. I am convinced that’s how I got into journalism." - Gwen Ifill

Click here for more on this topic, and here for stories from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.