Wilkins, Roger (Wood) 1932-
WILKINS, Roger (Wood) 1932-
PERSONAL: Born March 25, 1932, in Kansas City, MO; son of Earl Williams (a journalist) and Helen Natalie (a national board member of the Young Women's Christian Association; maiden name, Jackson) Wilkins; married Eve Estelle Tyler (a public service executive), June 16, 1956 (divorced, 1976); married May Meyers (a stained glass artist), April 4, 1977 (divorced, 1978); married Patricia King (a teacher of law), February 21, 1981; children: (first marriage) Amy T., David E.; (third marriage) Elizabeth W. C. Education: University of Michigan, A.B., 1953, LL.B., 1956. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Christian.
ADDRESSES: Home—Washington, DC. Office—c/o Institute for Policy Studies, 1901 Q St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
CAREER: Welfare worker in Cleveland, OH, 1957; admitted to the Bar of the State of New York, 1958; Delson & Gordon (law firm), New York, NY, attorney, 1958-62; Agency for International Development (AID), Washington, DC, special assistant administrator, 1962-64; U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, director of community relations, 1964-66; U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, assistant attorney general, 1966-69; Ford Foundation, New York, NY, program director and adviser to foundation president, 1969-72; Washington Post, Washington, DC, member of editorial page staff, 1972-74; New York Times, New York, NY, member of editorial board, 1974-77, urban affairs columnist, 1977-79; Nation, New York, NY, member of editorial board, 1979—; Washington Star, Washington, DC, associate editor, 1980-81; CBS-Radio, New York, NY, commentator for "Spectrum" program, 1980-83; Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, DC, senior fellow, 1982—; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, currently Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History and American Culture. Member of board of directors of Washington, DC, Family and Child Service, Arena Stage, New York City Cultural Council, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.; member of board of visitors of University of Michigan Law School; member of board of trustees of African-American Institute, 1979—, and Fund for Investigative Journalism, 1981—; senior adviser to Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign, 1983-84; member of steering committee of Free South Africa Movement, 1984—; member of visiting committee of Afro-American Studies Program, Harvard University, 1984—.
MEMBER: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Urban League, American Academy of Public Administration, Americans for Democratic Action.
AWARDS, HONORS: Marc Corporation senior fellow, 1971; co-recipient of Pulitzer Prize, 1972, for editorial writing on the Watergate scandal; LL.D. from Central Michigan University, 1974; named to the Pulitzer Prize board, 1979; D.H.L. from Wilberforce University, 1982; Regents' Lectureship, University of California, 1985; Otis Lecturer, Wheaton College, 1985; Commonwealth Professor, George Mason University, 1985-86; Roger Baldwin Civil Liberties Award, New York Civil Liberties Union, 1987.
A Man's Life: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982.
(Editor, with Fred R. Harris) Quiet Riots: Race and Poverty in the United States, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1988.
Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2001.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Esquire, Foreign Policy, Fortune, Mother Jones, Nation, New Yorker, and Village Voice, and to newspapers, including Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and Washington Star.
WORK IN PROGRESS: "A book assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Great Society programs, based primarily on the experiences and insights of poor, black, inner-city residents who were the objects of those programs."
SIDELIGHTS: The only son of college-educated, middle-class black parents and nephew of former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) director Roy Wilkins, Roger Wilkins spent the early years of his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri, until his father died of tuberculosis when Wilkins was only eight years old. He and his mother then moved to New York City, where they lived with relatives in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem that was, according to Wilkins, "where blacks who had it made were said to have lived the sweet life." In 1943 his mother remarried and Wilkins became the stepson of a successful Grand Rapids, Michigan, doctor, living in an all-white neighborhood and attending an all-white school.
Wilkins "came from the genteel Negro middle class at a time when the popular image of blackness was raw, poverty-stricken, angry," wrote Joseph Sobran in a National Review assessment of Wilkins's book A Man's Life: An Autobiography. Painfully aware of the differences between him and his Grand Rapids schoolmates, Wilkins relates that "with my friends in the north, race was never mentioned. Ever. I carried my race around with me like an open basket of rotten eggs. I knew I could drop one at any moment and it would explode with a stench over everything." He excelled in after-school football games with the neighborhood boys only because members of the opposing team would avoid him, afraid that he might be carrying a knife.
His efforts to gain acceptance as a black adolescent in a predominantly white setting also created cultural gaps between Wilkins and other blacks his age. By trying to demonstrate to the white world—socially and academically—that he was not inferior (a term the young Wilkins associated with blackness), he grew increasingly disdainful of and uncomfortable with his black peers: "One day I was standing outside the church trying, probably at my mother's urging, to make contact," Wilkins recalls in his book. "Conversational sallies flew around me while I stood there stiff and mute, unable to participate. Because the language was so foreign to me, I understood little of what was being said, but I did know that the word used for a white was paddy. Then a boy named Nickerson, the one whom my mother particularly wanted me to be friends with, inclined his head slightly toward me and said, to whoops of laughter, 'technicolor paddy.' My feet felt rooted in stone, and my head was aflame, I never forgot that phrase."
Despite the obstacles he encountered and the conflicts he felt growing up in a white environment, Wilkins was elected president of his high school's student council in his senior year. "It was a breakthrough of sorts," he remarked in A Man's Life. After graduation he attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a degree in law in 1956. He then practiced international law in New York City for several years before joining the Agency for International Development (AID) in Washington, DC. Sensitive to the demands of being successful in a field traditionally occupied by whites, Wilkins adapted to what he called "white power." Recalling those early years of his career in his autobiography, Wilkins wrote: "I had begun to know how white people operated in the world and had begun to emulate them. I had no aspirations that would have seemed foreign to my white contemporaries. I had abdicated my birthright and had become an ersatz white man." Even during the civil rights movements of the sixties and with the emergence of what he terms "the new black thought," Wilkins still felt a "sense of exclusion" and a degree of envy toward his white counterparts who, he assumed, were secure in "the absolute knowledge that America was their country."
From AID, Wilkins went on to serve as assistant attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice from 1966 to 1969. He then left government work to accept a position with the Ford Foundation in New York City. As director of the foundation's domestic program that provided funds for job training, drug rehabilitation, education for the poor, and other such minority-related projects, Wilkins had a "daily connection with blackness." It was, however, a connection that only seemed to underscore the ambivalence he felt as a black man operating within a predominantly white institution.
During his years with the Ford Foundation, Wilkins socialized with many of Manhattan's cultural elite, including writers Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Arthur Miller, as well as conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife. His circle of eminent friends "seemed as devoid of racism as any group of whites I had ever encountered," Wilkins explained in his book. Given such acceptance, he nevertheless felt out of place: "Because my work was not individualistic, creative, or as celebrated as that of most of the people I saw around me, I didn't believe I belonged." He further reflected that he "was enjoying a kind of life that was far beyond the actual or even imaginative grasp of the poor blacks to whom the serious efforts of my life were supposed to be committed ....It was as if, by entering that world at night, I was betraying everything I told myself I stood for during the day."
What happened—according to New York Times Book Review critic Joel Dreyfuss—was that Wilkins "gradually abandoned the desperate search for white approval and took on a role as an advocate for all blacks." Realizing his mistake in joining the Ford Foundation (he viewed it as "another way station in the white establishment"), he left his post there in 1972 to serve on the editorial staff of the Washington Post, where his editorials, along with the contributions of other staff members, earned the paper a special Pulitzer Prize nomination for its coverage of the Watergate scandal. Wilkins also held editorial posts with the New York Times before joining the Nation in 1979 as a member of the publication's editorial board.
When A Man's Life was published in 1982, it attracted national critical attention. Writing in the Washington Post Book World, award-winning author James Baldwin praised the autobiography as "so unprecedented a performance . . . that I consider it to be indispensable reading." Baldwin added that "Wilkins has written a most beautiful book, has delivered an impeccable testimony out of that implacable private place where a man either lives or dies." Dreyfuss, who called A Man's Life "an important, ground-breaking work," reflected that in the book Wilkins "asks for the acceptance—if not approval—of his own people, abandons his efforts to please white America and takes an important first step toward his personal liberation as an American." Such liberation, as suggested by John Leonard in his New York Times critique, is the result of the author's having been "for most of his life, underground, a fabrication." In the autobiography, Leonard continued, Wilkins "emerges to scream. All those false identities gag and choke. He spits them out. There is an excess Dostoyevsky would have understood." Richard Rodriguez, who praised A Man's Life in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, wrote: "Struggling to learn what it means to be black and middle class, Wilkins compels attention."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Wilkins's 2001 work, Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, "a brief but tremendously incisive demythologizing of four Virginian founders [George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason] and their conflicted attitudes toward race, in the process humanizing them and deepening our appreciation of the internal struggles involved in achieving their greatness, however flawed or incomplete."
In Jefferson's Pillow, Wilkins addresses how the Founding Fathers' achievements in creating a free American society contradict their practice of slave ownership. "Casting himself as a black Everyman, Wilkins recounts his struggle to reconcile his admiration for the achievements of the Founding Fathers and his revulsion at their moral failings with regard to slaveholding," wrote Mark Goldblatt in Reason. "More generally, his memoir asks whether African Americans can maintain that admiration in the face of the revulsion. Given the history of slavery, is black patriotism possible?"
Jefferson's Pillow, which derives its title from Thomas Jefferson's earliest recorded memory of being carried around on a pillow by a slave, is "an elegantly written, cogent study of the contrast between principles of American egalitarianism and the sociological limits many of its 'founding brothers' placed on it—whether by belief or necessity," wrote Tom O'Brien in America.
Through historical accounts, excerpts from personal correspondence, fragments of speeches and formal declarations, and other primary sources, Wilkins makes clear that "the Founding Fathers recognized full well that slavery was a moral abomination," Goldblatt wrote. Their lives were made easier by material possessions and privileges derived from slavery, and they became wealthy through the labor of the slaves. Possession of slaves as property was even considered a symbol of status, which gave slave owners a justification for equality with the peerage of the English ruling class. "The paradox, and for Wilkins it's a ghastly one, is that the egalitarian sentiment among the colonial leaders seems to have been genuine," Goldblatt observed. "The portraits he constructs of the four principals are fair-minded and surprisingly thorough for such a brief work," Goldblatt remarked. "But the portraits are also, invariably, indictments." To O'Brien, "Wilkins's book is also personal, in part a meditation on his ancestors and in part an explanation of how he can love a country that enslaved them and teach at a school named after a slaveholder."
Wilkins does not make complicated excuses for the actions of the founders, nor does he absolve them of their responsibility in their role as slaveholders. "The closest Wilkins comes to solving the 'dilemma' of black patriotism is his acknowledgement that the Founding Fathers were, in the end, bound by the moral and intellectual conventions of the age in which they lived," Goldblatt remarked. "Judged by their time, they were no worse than many and better than most." In the end, O'Brien wrote, Wilkins concludes that the principles put forth by the founders "were greater than their defects," and "their heritage is worth preserving and their names worth honoring, even if in a qualified way. America deserves his loyalty, he says, because its foundational principles proved stronger over time than the slaveholding doctrine that injured his ancestors, many of whom he brings alive in these pages." Vernon Ford, writing in Booklist, called Jefferson's Pillow "an important look at the essential and ongoing contradictions at the heart of American ideals of liberty and patriotism."
Wilkins once told CA: "Your request for a comment arrived on a day when I had read a fine essay by Arthur Miller and the obituary of E. B. White. Those readings reminded me of how many miles short I had fallen of achieving my youthful dream of becoming a true professional writer. Whether for lack of urgent inclination or because of other pressures, whatever natural talent I may have had has not been shaped and honed by the hard year-by-year toil required to make me an artist or even a fine craftsman. Rather, the sentences, the paragraphs, and even the book have been forged as weapons and hurled into the struggle for justice, which has been my real lifelong occupation. That way of working has made a rich life, but it has not made out."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Wilkins, Roger, A Man's Life: An Autobiography, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982.
America, November 26, 2001, Tom O'Brien, "To Have and to Hold," review of Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, p. 23.
Booklist, June 1, 2001, Vernon Ford, review of Jefferson's Pillow, p. 1834.
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, January, 2002, R. Detweiler, review of Jefferson's Pillow, p. 950.
Ebony, July, 1982, review of A Man's Life, p. 24; September, 2001, review of Jefferson's Pillow, p. 22.
Essence, November, 1982, Carole Bovoso, review of A Man's Life, p. 20.
Library Journal, July, 1982, review of A Man's Life, p. 1320.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 1, 1982.
Nation, November 26, 2001, "Freedom Stumped Its Toe," review of Jefferson's Pillow, p. 40.
National Review, August 20, 1982, Joseph Sobran, review of A Man's Life, p. 1032.
Newsweek, August 2, 1982, Gene Lyons, review of A Man's Life, p. 58.
New York Review of Books, April 20, 1995, review of A Man's Life, p. 34.
New York Times, June 14, 1982.
New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1982.
Publishers Weekly, April 30, 1982, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of A Man's Life, p. 49; May 28, 2001, review of Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, p. 60.
Reason, April, 2002, Mark Goldblatt, "America's Black History: Reconciling Patriotism with Slavery's Legacy," review of Jefferson's Pillow, pp. 60-63.
Trial, September, 1983, Gary Tolchinsky, review of A Man's Life, p. 34.
Washington Post Book World, June 6, 1982.*