December 2006 Interview: Phil & Nnenna Freelon

Download the interview in mp3 format

Intro:

Nnenna Freelon is a Jazz vocalist, composer, producer and arranger who has been nominated twice for the Lady of Soul Award, and nominated for count em’ six Grammy awards. She has worked with everybody, from Ray Charles and Anita Baker to Al Jarreau and Aretha Franklin. A graduate of Simmons College, Nnenna is now a spokeswoman for National Partners in Education. She has performed and educated all around the world.

Phil Freelon is an architect and the president of his own firm, The Freelon Group. A graduate of NC State design school, he pursued Masters in Architecture from MIT he studied at Harvard University as a Loeb Fellow and is currently a fellow of the American institute of Architects. Imma put you on to a few of his new projects: San-Francisco, The Museum of the African Diaspora; New Orleans, The Amistad Research Center; Greensboro, International Civil Rights Center and Museum; Baltimore, The Reginald F. Lewis Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture. The list goes on and on.

Mom, Dad…

Welcome to Blackademics.

Pierce Freelon:
Greetings. We are here with Blackademics. I’m here this evening with Nnenna Freelon please say hello to the Blackademics community.

Nnenna Freelon:
Hello Blackademics glad to be here.

Pierce:
Word, and Phil Freelon, welcome.

Phil Freelon:

Likewise it’s a pleasure.

Pierce:
Nice, okay. So I have a couple questions for you. There’s a lot of conversations going on, on Blackademics about how to uplift the black community. I think at the foundation of what we want to do, our mission statement is to cultivate a community of people that can ultimately uplift the black community. So one of the things that often comes up is the black family unit as a center from which we can uplift ourselves. So I was wondering if you could talk about -as a strong black family- if you could talk about the black family unit as an integral part of uplifting everybody.

Nnenna:
Well I do believe that family is the cornerstone of our community. I also think we have to be innovative and creative about our concept of family. The nuclear family is not the norm for everyone and I think we have to hold to the traditions that embrace family that you’re born into but also family that you adopt. Friends, you know, people that have meaning in your life who can be mentors and who you can mentor. I don’t think we have the luxury of just saying our nuclear family is it. And that has not that has not been our tradition here in this country. We were forced because of things out of our control to look at family in a very creative and expansive way and we need to continue to do that as a community if we want to see ourselves moving forward.

Phil:
And in prior generations, the notion that the nuclear family was in one place prevailed. Where you got married, you bought a house, you stayed there for 30 years, paid off your mortgage, your house was around the corner from your momma’s house. And so as the US economy grew and opportunities to work in different places occurred, then the families dispersed. So that’s where redefining family comes into play where you have extended family who aren’t necessarily blood relatives but it’s important to have auntie and grand momma and grand pop, they might not be your biological family but having that extended family. You have to adapt to today’s economy and the mobility of families now that don’t really stay put like they used to.

Pierce:
Okay, another question. Yall have been married for 27 years I’d like to personally applaud yall for that. One of the interesting things that comes up when we’re talking about the black family, when we’re talking about relationships-this question is for you, Phil. A lot of brothers, young black men will say: they don’t want a sister that’s making more money than them, they don’t want a sister that’s more accomplished than them that’s in the limelight. You know there’s a lot of issues going on there that brothers kinda struggle to deal with. Your wife here, (is a) 6-time Grammy nominated jazz vocalist she’s been on international tours, television, all of this stuff. How do you cope with that A? And B, what would you tell the young brothers out there that’s like “I don’t want a sister that’s got all kinds of attitude and she got a better job than me,” you know what I mean? So speak on that.

Phil:
Well first of all, I earn more money, so that’s good. (laughter)

Pierce:
Patriarchy, baby.

Phil:
But seriously, I look at the success of my partner and my spouse as reflecting very positively on me and our family. So I don’t separate it as something that’s hers and not mine. I feel very connected to Nnenna’s career and her success just as she is connected to my career and my success and so it’s a team. We know that teams work best when there is sharing and a way to control the ego, so that it’s not a selfish thing. We see that on the basketball court, we see that on the football field. Teams work best when you’re able to work together and really pull for each other. So it never occurred to me that Nnenna’s success would be a problem. It’s a wonderful thing and I’m just delighted with it.

Pierce:
Do you have anything to add to that, Nnenna?

Nnenna:
Well, let me just put it this way, we are taught from the very beginning of life to compete. That’s what we’re taught. I get and A you get a B, I pass, you fail, that kind of thing. And learning to compliment one another, cooperative economics, blending, lifting each other up – all of those kinds of things are concepts that have to be learned and practiced and they’re family values. And a lot of it has to do with what you observed when you were growing up. For some people, brothers and sisters who come into situations.. There’s some sisters, who grew up in a household where momma did everything. Momma washed, cooked, cleaned etc… and so they go into a marriage, think I gotta do everything. I have to do absolutely everything and they don’t learn to put their swords down. They’ve been out there swash-buckling all their lives, and that’s the methodology that they’ve learned that’s been successful for them. When they get married, then it’s like oh man; I didn’t even know I was carrying a sword let alone still swishing it about. So when we enter a marriage we have to learn different strategies and different ways and everyday isn’t… you know, I consider myself a womanist, a feminist. But when I’m home, I’m not beating my chest and burning my bra. I also revel in mothering, I enjoy cooking. I don’t like cleaning so much, no so much (laughter) but I do enjoy some of the quote “typical roles of women” and to me real freedom is being able to do whatever the hell I want to do at whatever time. Working outside the home, working inside the home, nursing my babies in public, whatever, whatever it takes.

Pierce:

All right, so I’d like to move form marriage issues to parenting. All issues that are kind of new to Blackademics, partially because a lot of people on blackademcis.org – we’re students we don’t have families yet. But it’s important that we reach out to yall elders especially ones that have already done it and done it well and kinda get advice from yall. One of the interesting things, a debate that’s come up on Blackademics. Do we send our children to public school or private school? You’ve kinda got this paradigm, or this paradox, excuse me, where the public schools are so poor; you don’t want to send them there. But you don’t want to send them up to the boojie white (schools) where they’re gonna lose touch with their community. Now you had one son who did the public school thing, graduated and went to Stanford. Two kids went to the private school thing, ended up at liberal arts universities. So I know there’s some give or take there, but I was wondering if you could talk about that for a little bit.

Phil:
Well, I think that you have to be very attentive to what each child needs and so you all came into the world with different personalities, different needs, different skills and so we tried to just be very sensitive to that and put you in situations where your likely to succeed. And so that’s different for every person, right? And it’s a blessing to have the resources to have some choices. Now what’s difficult is that many families most don’t have any choices and can’t really go beyond the public education. So I think you can get a good education in public school but it requires a lot of work by the parent’s, initiative by the student him or herself. And so, just in summary, I mean you have to keep your eyes and ears open and be ready to position your child wherever they may need to go in an environment that is best suited for him or her.

Nnenna:
I think school is more than academics, it’s social, it’s all kinds of things and so you have to look at the whole picture. I also think that everybody wants what’s best for their child but no matter where you put your child, public, private, home school, you have to be an advocate for that child. We spent loads of money sending our children to exclusive, white dominant schools; we still had to be present. You know you cannot buy an education then step away from your obligation as a parent. Nothing absolves you of that role. Whether they’re at public school or private school. And you know the reality is, whatever you do you’re going to have to supplement it with some Saturday trips to the African American Cultural Center.

Pierce:
Take em to Kwanzaa festival.

Phil:
Harriet Tubman daycare.

Nnenna:
Harriet Tubman birthplace. You gonna have to carry them to the family reunion so they can meet momma and pop pop and understand their own cultural heritage. And you’re gonna have to get with your friend that’s a math whiz and have Saturday math classes, to supplement some of the sorry math and science that they have in school. Take them to bassoon lessons, you know? You’re going to have to do all of those things that your child will tell you by his or her behavior, they’re hungry for. So you have to continually feed your child with experiences that are going to enrich their lives.

Phil:
And there’s another thing that we did, that you’ll remember and it has to do with television. We turned it off.

Nnenna:
Turn it off

Pierce:
Get away from that popular culture.

Phil:
It went off you know, at like 6 o’clock in the evening on Sunday and it didn’t come back on until like 6 o’clock in the evening on the following Friday.

Pierce:
Made me miss all types of cartoons. (Laughter)

Phil:
We didn’t watch either, to be fair. That’s a big part of it to, because you have to have some control over what goes into your children’s head.

Pierce:

Yeah, well thank you so much for your time, it’s very late creeping on midnight, and Peace.

Nnenna:
Thank you

Phil:
We enjoyed it.

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