Ronald V. Dellums Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Legislating for the People: Conversation with Ronald Dellums, former member of U.S. House of Representatives, 2/10/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Congressman Dellums, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

How did your parents shape your character?

Let me start with my mother.

My mother is a person without letters, dropped out of high school. I came into the world; [she] went back and finished high school. My mother is a person very much interested in education, tremendous thirst for knowledge, and a very broad visionary human being who, in many ways, lived out her dreams of education through her children, as did my father.

My mother's shaping: she gave me a sense of who I was as a human being. I remember an incident where I had been challenged and the name calling was, "you dirty black African." The short version of it is, she could have reinforced my anger, because I struck back at this person with anger. And my mother's point was that if calling you "dirty" was important enough to rise up, than that should have been the only justification, not because you're black or not because he called you African, because you're both. You have many, many things. There are many adjectives that describe who you are as a human being, and two of them are that you are black and of African descent. And wherever you go for the rest of your life, you should be able to stand very tall and very proud as a human being and, when asked, when challenged as a black and an African, "Yes I am, and I'm very proud of it." So at that point my mother reinforced my humanity, my sense of myself, my own sense of pride, and her desire to see me fully educated.

My father, a person with a photographic memory, loved to debate, loved to challenge, loved to challenge the order of things. When I talked to him about what I learned in school he would say, "Never accept at face value. Always be willing to question. Be open to ideas. Search. Probe. Don't just be a robot." And so both of them together, I think, very much interested in the pursuit of educational excellence and on the other hand very proud people, race-conscious people, who allowed me to develop a sense of myself as a proud human being. They told me early on in my life that being black and being African was a good thing, so I was not burdened by that. I've never seen myself as a victim. I saw myself as fighting people who attempted to challenge me as a victim. So they gave me a very strong sense of myself and, at the center of it, education and learning and evolving are very important factors.

How did these influences affect you growing up in Oakland when you did?

Well, you know it was fascinating, because many of my friends internalized the same notions about my parents that I did. So whenever many of my friends were about to go off into adventures, sometimes on the edge, they would send me home. "Go home, man!" They would call me Sundown Ronny because my friends knew that my parents, when sundown came, I had to be home, I had to be there for meals, I had to be there to do my homework. And so in one sense, many of my friends saw me as a special person, living with a special group of people who wanted very much to see me pursue my education and I think, in many ways, were very protective of me. You know, "You're one of the guys who are going to make it out of here." And that was significant in reinforcing who I was.

I was born in 1935. West Oakland, early on, was a definite community. There were many white ethnics who lived in West Oakland as a working-class community. When World War II began, West Oakland became the major point of entry for black people coming in from the South, who came in to take advantage of the economic expansion and opportunities of the war economy, as it were. Dellums as a schoolboy at St. Patrick's As a result of that, suddenly West Oakland over night becomes a small Southern town. And here's this kid who was going to St. Patrick's Catholic School, who spoke a little differently, who talked about different things, and many of these older persons from the South, who had very little if any education, were fascinated by this young guy. "Where did you learn these things?" Or sometimes I would go to visit my friends and we'd go to leave and the old folks would say, "No, sit a while, because I want to hear what this kid has to say." Then I would hear people say, you know, "That kid sure can talk! He's going to be a preacher or a lawyer some day." Well, as a kid those are reinforcing, and very positive reinforcements, and I think that had some significant import in shaping my life. I certainly wasn't a perfect guy. I dropped the ball many times along the way.

Your uncle was also an influence on you. Tell us a little about him.

C. L. Dellums, as you know, joined with A. Philip Randolph. These were guys that came out of the twenties, these were the old left-wing guys in the twenties. They came together and organized the first African American trade union in the history of America, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. These were guys who placed a great premium on the spoken word as a way of organizing, to be impressive when they challenged people. You know, people thought A. Philip Randolph and C. L. Dellums and these guys were Harvard graduates, because they developed an affect that challenged the system to deal with them intellectually, at an eyeball-to-eyeball level.

Well, my uncle: here's this beautiful, erudite, incredibly well-groomed, impeccable person with extraordinary articulation who, on Seventh Street, had an office over the pool hall. So in my life with this magnificent success model, and wherever I went, people, when they'd hear my last name would say, "Is C. L. Dellums your father?" And I'd say "No, my father is Verney Dellums, but C. L. Dellums is my uncle." But I immediately began to realize that C. L. was the man and that he commanded respect across the broad spectrum of people in the Bay Area. And going to his office, he had a staff person, he had an office, he smoked a pipe, he dressed elegantly. He was a fighter, he was strong, he was courageous. So this success model in my life was very important in shaping my life, because here I knew that you could succeed, that you could be successful. You did not have to be intimidated, and that you could be respected by people, because the politics of that community came through him: union activity, civil rights activity, et cetera. He was just this incredible, book cover larger-than-life person who continued to push me to pursue my education.

One of the other things that people noticed about you as a young person, and I'm quoting here from your new book Lying Down with the Lions, they said, "Now that boy understands what we were saying." You learned to be a listener as a young person didn't you?

Yes. Sometimes it was overstatement; sometimes I didn't understand. But I knew that I wouldn't understand if I didn't listen.

So I did learn how to listen. I was around adults a great deal and that became important, the ability to hear the other person, to listen to people, to try to fully understand what the other person is trying to say. Both my mother and my father and my grandmother instilled that in me. Listen to hear. And when they realized that I was listening and that, at some point, I could engage them seriously they said, this guy is understanding. So that again was a positive reinforcement.

Any books that you read as a young person, or later when you matured into adulthood, that stand out now, that affected you?

There was one book that stood out. You know I've read a lot of books along the way because, as I said, part of my upbringing, when kids would go out for the summer, I couldn't go out to play until I had read a certain amount of books all the time, so that was a constant reinforcement, the reading and the use of the library. But as a young adult having actually come out of the university, I had a master's degree, and I met this wonderful, wonderful African American who was the first Ph.D. that I met to know that he was a Ph.D. He handed me a book one day and he said, "I want you to read this book." And the title of the book was The Shoes of the Fisherman. Very briefly, it's a story about a Catholic cardinal imprisoned in the Soviet Union, freed, goes back to the Vatican by a strange set of circumstances. He becomes the Pope, and it's the story of how this guy escapes the Vatican to go out and touch people and continue to feel life in a real way. And he said, "When you finish the book, come talk with me." [Later:] "Why do you think I gave you this book?" I had no real idea. He said, "Because it's a story about the loneliness of leadership and the need to continue to fight isolation as a leader. I see you as a young leader, and you need to prepare yourself for leadership." Overwhelming! Made me go back and read the book a second time with different eyes and a different view.

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