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On the Shoulders of Giants


There’s Constance Baker Motley—the first Black woman to become a federal judge—recounting her harrowing trip to a jail cell to check on inmates Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
There’s Barbara Harris, the first woman elected bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, detailing the early challenges of women in the pulpit. And photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, delighting in the tale of how he bluffed his way into his first fashion-photography job.

These African-American sheroes and heroes—along with many other celebrated leaders, educators, artists and icons—share very personal conversations on videotape as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project.

Cofounded by Camille O. Cosby and Renee Poussaint, the ambitious oral history program kicked off in 2001 with a six-figure investment from Cosby. It aims to record and preserve the autobiographies of notable African-Americans 70 years and older, and to teach leadership skills to young people.
You can find excerpts from the interviews at NVLP’s Web site, visionaryproject.com, and in a new companion book, A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak (Atria Books), by Cosby and Poussaint. You can also see the full interviews in the library of the NVLP headquarters just north of the White House in Washington, D.C.

So far Cosby, the educator, producer and wife of comedian Bill Cosby, and Poussaint, an award-winning broadcast journalist, have interviewed about 60 elders and trained more than 50 college students to conduct their own interviews of Black elders.
Robin D. Stone recently talked with Cosby and Poussaint, both 59, about plans for the program and the importance of shaping our own history.

Robin Stone: You’ve invested enormous amounts of time and money in the National Visionary Leadership Project. Why is this so important to you and to our people?

Camille Cosby: We must become critical thinkers. And the only way to be a critical thinker is to know the truth about our history. All of us have been guilty of just absorbing what the media tells us about ourselves. But we must question what we’re told. And listening to oral histories will give us a different view of ourselves.

Stone: How did you two come together to start this project?

Cosby: Renee and I were involved in previous projects about African-American elders. I was working on a television movie and a Broadway play about the Delany sisters, Having Our Say, and I was introduced to Renee by her uncle, Dr. Alvin Poussaint.
We realized we shared a desire to develop something of value about African-American elders. Renee came up with a concept that involved Dr. John Hope Franklin and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s being transported to Goree Island in Senegal to impart their wisdom to 21 young people: seven from Senegal, seven from the United States and seven from South Africa—all teenagers and from different cultures in each country. It was a documentary that was eventually aired on PBS. And from that came the idea to create a forum for elders to speak and for young people to learn about their tenacity.

Stone: How do you determine whom to interview?

Cosby: We get names from our advisory board and nominations through the Web site, where members of the public can nominate anybody they want.

Stone: What were some surprises in your interviews?

Rene Poussaint: The wonderful thing is that so many of the elders are at a stage in their lives where they can talk freely. And they can laugh at themselves and talk about mistakes they made. Andy Young talked about how he never paid attention in class, and how he probably had attention deficit disorder and was always talking back and not respecting authority.
At Howard, he said, he majored in partying. And Andy told me that the most frightening experience of his life was not facing down the mobs in the civil-rights struggle—it was knowing his parents were on a train, coming up from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to attend his graduation, and he didn’t know if he had enough credits to graduate. But he also mentioned that shortly afterward he began to take control of his life.

Stone: There’s a sense of urgency in your work. Do you feel you need to hurry?

Cosby: There is a sense of urgency, particularly for the folks in their late eighties and nineties. One gentleman had a fainting spell at the end of interviewing; I think he was 96. And we have lost people before we could interview them, like jazzman Lionel Hampton and Joe Black, the famous baseball player. If we don’t get our elders’ stories, this history will be misinterpreted, if it’s interpreted at all.

To read the entire article, “The Shoulders of Giants,” pick up the February issue of ESSENCE.