Search
  • Charles Greene

Post #8 Don’t Just “Assume” Democracy: My Conversation with Dr. Gregory Vincent

About one month after conducting the first Big Black Man Project interview (My First Big Black Man, My Dad), my father called me with some ideas for the project. He didn’t want to impose his vision of the Project on what we were doing, and he had a few people that he really thought should be part of the project. One of the first was Dr. Gregory Vincent. My father had met Dr. Vincent through his association with Sigma Pi Phi, otherwise known as "the Boulé," and had only wonderful things to say of the man.

Many of the Big Black Men I modeled in my youth were related to my father by their association with Alpha Phi Alpha. It seemed only appropriate that he would call to suggest that another brother from a fraternal association would make his list of people I should interview.

Right away, it was apparent what my father thought would be necessary about a conversation with Dr. Vincent. Gregory is a scholar, educator, social justice advocate, lawyer, and, more importantly, kind human being who has worked for decades on the issues of justice, access, and extending the bounty of the American dream to all.

In conducting the interview, I was lucky to find a kindred spirit and someone able to expand my thinking on the issues of racial equity, global connectedness, the need for active engagement of our democracy, and hope for the future.


Please enjoy this latest installment of the Big Black Man Project, and as always, I thank you for your sharing in our narrative journey.



Charles Greene _______________________________________________________________________________


Interviewee: Gregory Vincent Age: 58 Place of Birth: New York City. Current Location: Physically, Austin, Texas. Virtually, Lexington, Kentucky, at the University of Kentucky. Occupation: Professor and Executive Director of the Education and Civil Rights Initiative. A partnership between the NAACP and the University of Kentucky.


CLGII: I always like to start with the tough existential questions. Can you describe your reason for being? Is there an important anecdote or story that might be illustrative of that reason?


GV: What a great question. We all are put here for a purpose. And fulfilling that purpose is your greatest function. I think it’s a fundamental question. I believe that I was put here to be an instrument for justice and equity and use my God-given skills to ensure that everyone can live life with dignity and live life without artificial barriers.


My senior year in college, I received the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award for the student who most exemplified the qualities of Dr. King. I felt like I was completely undeserving of this, but the dean of the college said, “This is done for two reasons.” One was the work that I did on campus, largely around urging trustees to divest from South Africa. “But also as a charge for what you need to do with your life.” At 21, I was charged with being one of the people because no one person could continue the legacy of Dr. King.


CLGII: Where did you go to school?


GV: I went to college at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, followed by The Ohio State University for law school and the University of Pennsylvania for my doctorate. Hobart and William Smith Colleges are Episcopal colleges. My family and I are life-long Episcopalians, and I had the wonderful opportunity to connect and get a full scholarship.


Just incidentally, within that Episcopal tradition, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, is a Hobart graduate.


CLGII: Fantastic. I had the pleasure of working at a boarding school for seven years that was an Episcopal identity boarding school. We were continually trying to figure out how we could live into that as part of our identity and move through the world in a way that is about our values. It reminded me of the time that I spent at Boston College, a Jesuit institution that often asked itself similar questions.


GV: Yes. It’s difficult these days. We had a mandatory chapel, not when I was there, but a few years before me. The question is often, “How do you keep that identity while also trying to get a broader student body?” It’s an interesting dilemma.


CLGII: I went to Boston College for graduate school, and it was interesting. I was there for my MBA. It was my understanding that every classroom in Boston College has a crucifix on the wall except in the business school. I think it was a concession to attracting a broader audience with slightly different motivations than the undergraduate student body. I always thought it was an interesting choice to bend their identity for the business school.


GV: For sure.


CLGII: I wonder if you could describe your relationship with America?


GV: Wow. I need to contextualize that to be able to answer the question accurately. I am the grandchild of immigrants. My father’s family is from Grenada, and my mother’s family is from Saint Kitts. They came over at the turn of the last century, in the early aughts. Well, that’s not true because both of my grandfathers fought in World War I for England, so it would’ve been in the late teens that they came into the United States. That’s the first dimension of it.


I think the other dimension is where I grew up. So much of our country is regional. I grew up in New York City, in the proverbial melting pot. I think my relationship with America is an opportunity and challenge; opportunity because, in honor of my parents, I wanted to take advantage of their dream, which was to make a better life for their children. And because one of the features of New York is that they have this wonderful public education system.


Particularly on my father’s side and from my mother, they took advantage of the free education of the City University of New York. In one generation, there was real movement into the educated middle class. Both of my parents are college-educated and for free.


They had this opportunity. I wanted to situate that in a very strong church home, I saw firsthand what education could do. What faith, what stability, community, all those things could do. I certainly have benefited from that opportunity. I want to acknowledge that I think it was genius that the people of New York decided to create a free education system that’s changed now, but certainly for many decades was the case.


I think the challenge, of course, is what we’re facing right now. The original sin of this country has been slavery, racism, white supremacy. And my relationship with America as a black man is that reality which has significantly impacted my life. Race is often at the center of so many transactions, relationships, and the like, and in many ways, very positive.


I happen to go to an Episcopal church that was black because blacks couldn’t worship with whites at that time. As a result, they formed their own church. So many of these things were very positive. We have institutions in reaction to systemic racism. That has been a wonderful byproduct of this sin.


We also know now that we see racism as a public health crisis. It has an impact on us, so that’s a challenge as well. We have been forced to take honest, real stock of where we are, and some of the picture is not very pretty. All you have to do is look at January 6th to see a large reaction to the idea that we don’t want certain people in power. It is a sobering thought.


CLGII: Regarding the January 6th coup attempt, I am often quite outspoken amongst my friends and associates, particularly online. One of the arguments I’ve been making forever is that the result of systemic racism, whether people believe it exists or not, is that we are not a communal nation. America is not a nation where everyone looks at each other and says, “We’re all in this together.” We never have been. We may look at specific groups of people that we consider as part of our in-group. But we never look across all groups and think all of us are in this together. January 6th was probably one of the most illustrative examples of that point. I think about the generosity and resilience of Stacey Abrams when she could legitimately question whether an election was stolen from her using something no more nefarious than voter suppression. She decided to build an organization that would have more people mobilized. If you replicate that across the country, you suddenly have the way to win an election with a vote count that looks very similar to 2016. And yet, we have people who are willing to throw away the entire democracy in order for that not to occur.


I think you’ve said it best; there is the inherent challenge in all of us trying to live here as part of this country while also availing ourselves of the opportunity.


I’m curious if the last four years have impacted your view of the world, if at all?


GV: Again, what a great question. During these four years, two of which I served as the Grand Sire of the Boulé. I bring that up only to say that I had the opportunity to travel abroad on behalf of the fraternity, twice to England, Europe, Ireland, the Caribbean, and Africa, including Ghana and South Africa. There were a couple of things that hit me as I traveled to all of those places. My first trip was to London. And then, I did a keynote address in Ireland to recognize the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass. I didn’t appreciate that for almost two years, he lived in the U.K., in England and Ireland, to get away from the Fugitive Slave Act.



What he realized and what he talked about was the commonality, the struggle between Irish farmers facing the famine and what we were facing in the United States. He was able to make global connections in a way that I thought was really powerful. Going to the Caribbean, part of the transatlantic slave trade, the only difference between our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean and us in the United States was that they got dropped off first.


That was part of the diaspora that was so important. When you go to the islands, you are reminded of that. And for me, with my West Indian roots, I certainly understood what freedom meant, what it meant to have self-determination. Grenada’s history and their wanting to break from the yoke of U.S. imperialism was an interesting relationship.


But I think the most profound thing was my trip to Africa, Ghana, and then, of course, South Africa. With Ghana, it was part of working with the NAACP and returning home to commemorate the 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade. What you saw was this yearning, this connection to our brothers and sisters in Ghana and the motherland, to us. They want that. This is not some passive action. It was a yearning to be there.


I think one of the most profound symbols for me, and it has implications for what we’ve just been talking about, was that above the slave dungeons, by the Final Passage, was a church. This idea that white Christianity was so intertwined with human bondage and slavery and white supremacy is such a vivid symbol. It was shocking because I didn’t catch it at first. And then I thought, “Wow!”


I had read about that, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know. But the visual of it was powerful. And then finally, going to South African and being in the cell of President Mandela, thinking of what he had to endure for those many decades, to be able to deal with that, and then rising to power. Instead of seeking vengeance, he fought for truth and reconciliation. That was such a powerful sense of leadership. It was about faith. It was about redemption. It was about accountability.


It tied everything together, and it made me connect with something that Ambassador Young said to me, that our brothers and sisters in the diaspora need us, and we need them. And so, for me, these last four years have helped me understand how we’re connected to our brothers and sisters across the globe. If you look at George Floyd and the fact that this was a global protest, certainly starting in the United States, people throughout the world joined the protest.


We see this pandemic. The pandemic doesn’t care about borders, or barriers, or language; it’s coming for you, right? I think, first is this notion that we’re all connected, and we should take advantage of that fantastic opportunity. That’s one major thing. I think the other thing is that I had always believed that we were making slow but sure progress toward racial justice. I never thought we were in a post-racial society. I never believed that. But I did believe we were making progress and that notion of the moral arc.


I believed we were there. And then we get this shock of someone who had little to no care about those notions and, in fact, was actively hostile to those ideals. He also attacked some of the norms that we took for granted. I think it was a wake-up call. We have to make sure that we don't just “assume” democracy. Democracy and citizenship are an active sport. You can’t sit on the sidelines.


So that was the other piece, and then finally just about being healthy. You have to be physically, spiritually, mentally healthy to participate in our global community fully.


CLGII: I love that last piece about being healthy and what it takes to be physically, spiritually, emotionally able to participate. When we saw everyone marching in the streets, I thought to myself, “Wow, there are people who are realizing that this is an active fight that needs to be engaged. It is an active conversation. And aren’t we lucky that there are people who are willing and able to do that?”


This is not a battle that can be fought just online or just around coffee tables. I’m not discounting those conversations that need to happen around coffee tables and online as well, and there needs to be active participation around it. I think you had a brilliant insight.


Interestingly, you brought up Andrew Young. I think we’ve had similar conversations with him. He and I were part of the same wedding party. The family was from Atlanta, but they chose to get married in the Bahamas.


He was reminiscing about spending time with Dr. King and how they would escape to The Bahamas to change their frame of reference. And they could get there quickly, and they could sit and think about, “What strategies do we need to engage to move the battle forward?” If they needed to write an important speech or think about rallying the troops, it was a way for them to change their frame of reference. And then they would hop on a boat and come back and continue their work.


GV: Yeah, that’s powerful.


CLGII: If you could change the world, what would you do first?


GV: I’m going to take the lawyerly way out and do 1A and 1B. I’ll do a few things because they’re related. I would provide sufficient health care, shelter, food, and education to everyone because we will thrive if we do those things.


CLGII: I’m curious as to whether you have thought about our education system? In America, we don’t have a nationalized education system. And the last four years, if nothing else, proved to me that objective truth is as complicated, if not more challenging, to protect than a democracy. I’m wondering if you’ve thought a bit about what steps we need to take around education?


GV: It’s a pretty simple thing, and it’s one of the most daunting or virtually impossible things we need to do. We need to live up to the promise of Brown v Board of Education. I think Brown lays out what we need to do. You’re so astute to ask, “Who’s in charge of this thing?” We do have some federal mandates. We do have some state standards, and education is essentially a local issue. The quality of your education at the public level depends entirely on where you live, your zip code, etc.


Absent some kind of magnet school interventions or some private school opportunities; the reality is your education is there. And so, for many who live in middle-class, affluent areas, they like their education system. It doesn’t work for about a third of our students because they live in poverty and housing that results from decades of state-sponsored racial apartheid. I think that has been the challenge. Living up to the spirit of Brown is about asking, “ How does everyone get a quality education?”


Related to that, and this is the point I believe you’re alluding to, is this notion of the truth. We talk about the South losing the Civil War, but they won because they’ve won the hearts and minds of so many. To be blunt, it’s not until I had to deal with this Confederate imagery that I realized that they play the long game, which has been to own the narrative.


The narrative is that this was about states’ rights, and there is this notion that we don’t want to talk about that ugly history, although like any cancer, you can’t ignore it. You have to deal with it. You have to address it. You have to carve it out to be able to thrive. And we’ve never done that.


To hear a well-educated brother in Tulsa say he did not know about the Tulsa riots blew me away. It’s not like someone in Boston, or New York, or California. Someone in their community didn’t know what happened with the riots. We’ve never told our country’s full truth, and some of it was this Old South narrative. The other one is, “Our children can’t handle it.” I would argue that that’s BS. I think there are ways that you can honestly teach our history.


I think that truth-telling has to be part of our narrative. And more than ever, given this four-year assault on the truth, we have to be even more faithful to the truth.


CLGII: Dr. Vincent, it has been lovely speaking with you. I had one last question. Are there any fears you carry out in the world as a Black man?


GV: I believe this is a fear of every Black father: the safety of my children. My youngest, who’s in high school, is a runner. He runs cross country and track. And his coach, with whom we have a great relationship, was saying, “You guys run on your own,” And my wife and I, we were thinking, “Oh, hell no! That’s not going to work.” We live in a subdivision. Our neighbors know us—at least visually, they know us. But I had a fear, and I believe a real one. There’s one other brother on the team, and I didn’t speak to his parents about this. I did not feel comfortable with my child running just in the subdivision or anywhere just running. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so we had to figure out ways. Every day, while others were just running in their neighborhoods, we made a schedule, Kim and I, to make sure he got to a track or did what he needed to do.


Eventually, we said, “Okay, let’s do a trial run.” And now we feel better because the summer protests have kind of waned; I think that was part of it as well. We had heightened feelings. But now, I’ll be blunt with you again, given the crazies that are out here, we have a heightened sense of concern. So I would say that’s my biggest fear, the safety, and welfare of my children.


CLGII: If you ask me, one of the real tragedies of being Black in America is the need for the talk and the question, “Have you talked with your kids?” Why do we need to expose or warn our kids about this potential ongoing trauma?


GV: That’s such a powerful point. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Attorney General Holder, and the fact that the chief enforcement officer—he was a prosecutor for many years, so he’s been part of this for so many years—he had to “have the talk,” with his children. Imagine that you’re the person in charge of the federal law enforcement apparatus, including the FBI, and you still have to “have the talk” with your kid. That tells you everything you need to know.


CLGII: Maybe we’ll end it with that. Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything I should have asked you?


GV: One of my mantras is that I always end on a positive note. I can’t leave it on that fear because one of the things that my parents taught me is to understand fear. Manage your fear. Never be overcome by it.


I am so impressed with our young people. Congressman Lewis was one of our elder statesmen, a true American patriot, and he always kept that youthful spirit. And I just reflect on the advice he gave young people. And what better person to provide that authentic advice, empowering our youth. I’m so impressed with how empowered our young people are, how courageous they are, how entrepreneurial they are. I do have a lot of hope for the future of our young people. You saw what the Inaugural Poet did yesterday. There’s so much power that’s out there. I’m convinced that the future is bright.


280 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All