Sara Collins, Tony’s daughter, at BLM Plaza. Photo credit: LA Collins
It’s Juneteenth: “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day” –the day that Texas, the most remote of states, freed all slaves. So it’s only fitting that today, in the midst of a relentless Black Lives Matters campaign and on the cusp of what feels to many like real change, my friend of 25 years, Tony Collins, tells us a little about why he feels more hope than he ever has on this Juneteenth, 2020.
Q. How has the current Black Lives Matter movement affected you?
A. I’ve been surprised and a little uncomfortable at the amount of pain it’s brought up, pain I realize I’ve been suppressing. Pain about things that happened to me and my father before me have gotten closer to the surface than it’s ever been. My dad’s been on my mind a lot.
Leroy Collins, Sr.
Q. What was your dad like?
A. He grew up in a small Virginia town in the middle of nowhere, in the shadow of a plantation (forced labor camp) owned by the Collins family. There is a white Collins cemetery there and a Black Collins cemetery and I’m related to all those folks. After enslavement, most Black people there worked the fields or did other manual labor. My father was handsome and charming with a beautiful singing voice and smile. He completed eighth grade before moving to Norfolk and working odd jobs until he was old enough to join the military. He served thirty years and fought in three wars but was never promoted beyond staff sergeant. He never spoke about all the racial stuff he must have encountered. Never spoke of it.
Q. What about your mom?
A. She was a tiny, but fierce, protector of her kids. We were the only Black students at our schools in Marin County, California and on more than one occasion my mother marched into the school to confront our teachers about racial profiling or stereotypes. My father was posted overseas a lot but we stayed in the US. Mom went to college before they got married, but Dad never had that opportunity. At school I played sports and did well academically. A white guidance counselor once told my mother, “If you send any of your kids to college, it should be Tony.” My mother expected more than that from all of us and she ensured that all five of my siblings and I attended higher education.
My dad didn’t have that. It never occurred to me that college wasn’t within my reach, but my father’s experience was different. Black men in North Carolina in the 1930’s were discouraged from pursuing education. After WWII, with a GI Bill that was managed regionally, discrimination prevented the opportunity for him to get a GED and go to college. He re-enlists and it’s not until much later in life, in Philadelphia that he is able to get a VA home loan to purchase our first house. This was the reality of being Black in America back then and when I think about it today, it pains me.
Like I said, the pain is closer to the surface now than it has ever been. As I watch the Black Lives Matter movement grow, I can no longer hold that pain in.
Tony at age 5.
Q. What was growing up in Marin County, Calif. like?
A. Because I grew up there I don’t have those stories of being raised in an inner-city neighborhood, Just my dad being away in the military and my mom fighting for us. I was lucky that racism wasn’t overt there like it was in other parts of America. But I’ve begun to remember and get in touch with some of the micro-aggressions I faced while growing up.
(L to R) Tony Collins, Ruben Padgett, Dayle Greene. Padgett was Hillsborough County, Florida’s first African American County Commissioner. Greene was the first Black news anchor in the Tampa Bay area.
Q. What did you do after college?
A. I attended Howard University in the late 60’s and was exposed to Stokely Carmichal, Rap Brown, Marion Barry and others. I then joined the Marine Corps during the Vietnam era. When I left the Corps, I returned to the northeast and the civil rights struggle was all around me. Working around Jesse Jackson and other Black leaders I saw progress but also disappointment and unrelenting pressure from the mainstream. It was a tumultuous time and as a young person with a head full of military training and experience, and Black struggle it was confusing and difficult to see what winning looked like.
Q. Did you stay in social activism?
A. No. My dad retired and found a job at Philadelphia insurance company. Even though his job was not executive, he was able to get me referred for a position and I found myself on the corporate fast track. Success would mean accentuating my military experience and suppressing my social justice instincts and Black roots so I could fit in and succeed.
The suits, the ties, the Clubs, the Boards, the questions about basketball. Always the only Black man. Always on the outside at the end of the day.
The banalities: I learned how to cloak my blackness to fit in. For example, I’d enter a meeting room early, find a seat (but never near the head of the table). I’d never get up, I’d never use too much intensity in my voice because I sensed and knew that white people and especially white women are intimidated with my tone and physicality because I’m a Black man.
That’s really when I began to perfect all those mechanisms to push things down, my blackness, my feelings about blackness.
I was complying with the status quo. I’m not complying now. I’m not attacking, but I’m not hiding, either.
Q. Do you think most successful black people cope?
A. It’s not uncommon in the arc of a Black life. Men like Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois or Bayard Rustin. They vacillate between being accommodating and using fierce resistance and then end up saying, “the hell with that, this is who I am! ” It’s from “can’t we all just get along’” to Black Lives Matters.
In some ways Barack Obama is responsible for the greatest step forward and for Black Lives Matter. I love Obama. Every Black person was excited that Obama was elected president but America was stunned when he said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin” and at his anguish at Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson because it reminded everyone that he was Black and he knew it.
Barack Obama is the best at navigating America’s demand for Black compliance. Never loses his temper, super-confident, super cool in public. The problem is, you can follow the message to be like Barack in order to excel: he did it all right. But in reality, you still might arrest us at a traffic stop, shoot us in our own homes, harass us at every encounter and never take your foot off our necks.
It may be generational. I didn’t know any Black man who brought his full, authentic self to work.
Jessie Jackson & Tony Collins
Q. What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?
A. What I love about Black Lives Matters is that it reflects that fire in the belly that says, “you know what? I’m fierce and I’m not taking it any longer.” It is part of the history of being Black in America, from Nat Turner through Frederick Douglass to Eldridge Cleaver, to James Baldwin. We’ve always known that part of the way out is fierce resistance.
I’m now unearthing myself and remembering my early exposure to civil rights leaders and what I learned about the history of resistance.
When I see an old photo of me with Jesse Jackson, I remember who I was and what I was thinking. I made a choice to pursue a corporate pedigree, join the Chamber of Commerce, the private clubs and do everything a certain way in an attempt to inoculate myself from the disease of racism.
But in the end, I woke up and realized there are no inoculations that will keep you from being infected by it. They’re still gonna shoot you.
Q. Can you say more about what’s going on for you now?
A. I’ve got decades of those inoculations. But now, I’m back to when I was in college, learning the ways racism impacts you and can take your very life. It’s like ripping at a scab, the wound is still raw underneath.
And yet part of the emotion I’m feeling is that I have hope now, hope I haven’t had in years because of Black Lives Matters and people like you and others. You’re in the 5% of people who are listening and really trying to learn right now. Thinking about it, talking about it, willing to take risks, to put yourself out. It’s a small number, but I see it growing.
So my tears are for the time wasted by the old me, the current me that’s getting in touch with my core and also the new world that I am beginning to see could actually be possible.
Q. What do you think has to happen for that new world to become reality?
A. In America the predominant value has to become a commitment to becoming antiracist. Its not enough to be polite and kind and neutral, everyone has to be focused on stamping out racism the same way we are trying to end cancer, stop drunk driving and end gun violence. We have to rethink everything because our society is built on an incomplete history.
Q. What would you say to black people who are watching BLM unfold?
A. Resistance to oppression and tyranny is an American story. African people have been resisting enslavement and discrimination since 1619. Those stories went untold. Progress in this country has always come from an alliance of people of color, progressive thinking and people of faith pursuing the real American dream. Reject any effort designed to diminish your Blackness.
Register, vote, and remember to say their names, ALL their names, because Black Lives Matter.
About Tony Collins: A seasoned executive with extensive business and public relations experience, Tony is currently president of the Blake Collins Group. During his career Collins led several local and statewide economic development agencies and was Chair of the Florida Black Business Investment Board for more than a decade. Tony is a student of history, a member of the NACCP and the Co-founder of the social justice website Truthshine.