“Embrace the Humanity”: An Interview with Leland Gantt

“Embrace the Humanity”: An Interview with Leland Gantt

By Alex Miller

Leland Gantt has worked in film for years. I remember seeing his face as early as 1992 in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X; he played conspirator Wilbur Kinley. Gantt reminds me a little of LeVar Burton, but with the slick, smooth, effortless confidence of Ving Rhames—he is, in a word: cool. He’s got this leather jacket, a skullcap, and jeans that I instantly appreciate when we meet at the diner. He tells the waitress where we’re going to sit, a booth near the TV, close to the rear of the establishment. The conversation just seems to work from the start. We get each other. 

I am in awe of his work—his Drama Desk Award Nomination for the play Let Me Live, numerous  film and TV credits (including another Spike Lee joint, Miracle at St. Anna), and his recent solo show Rhapsody in Black, which Gantt has performed internationally, has been widely lauded as an outstanding portrayal of blackness and the racism that goes along with it. But it was time to learn his story offstage.

ALEX MILLER: Where are you from?

LELAND GANTT: I’m from Mckeesport in Pittsburgh. It was not only a major industry town, but also a pipeline for the Underground Railroad. During that steel mill era, you could always see the smoke stacks working, pumping out smoke plumes of white, gray, or black. That’s how you knew people had jobs. And it was great for the town.

I never really knew my dad, but I had two sisters and a brother, and a couple of my mother’s boyfriends stuck around to give some form of male household figures. And this was the 60s, through the 70s. There was a bar on every corner back then. And pimps had actual ‘pimp mobiles, with the half-landau roof, cow horns on the front grill, dice on the rearview mirror.

(We both laugh at this last little miracle of black ghetto-hood culture. Although nothing is funny about the way those pimps treated prostitutes, the era of these dudes who looked stereotypical, like they “came right out of a comic book” is still fresh in my memory.)

What’s the biggest problem with telling a black person they’re “imagining” racism?

It’s really just a simple instance of experience. If you get 10,000 hours on the job, you are an expert in your field. I’ve been a black man my entire life. For six decades I’ve been walking around in this skin. You’re trying to tell me I don’t know what racism looks like by now? People don’t see the same things that black people see because they’re not experts in the field of being black.

Exactly! The people most oblivious to racism think they know what it looks like. In the 60s so many white people didn’t realize how bad race issues were, but then claimed in the 80s that at least shit wasn’t as bad as the 60s. How can they profess to know how bad racism is in this country today? It’s just ridiculous. 

True, true. But there was something about that time period that is very much reminiscent of today. In the 60s, Jews and non-marginalized groups of whites were right there in the thick of it. Freedom Riders were getting murdered for their beliefs, and some of them weren’t black. The PC movement came out of that time period, because too many cameras were filming the worst that this country had to offer to its own citizens. The 90s really opened up a new can of worms, but the 60s for the first time caught America red-handed, and showed everyone that things hadn’t really changed too much.

What’s your favorite most hated phrase people outside the black community use about people inside it? Mine is “Fix your own community first before you ask society to change!” 

(Laughs heartily) ‘Favorite most hated phrase?’ I don’t think I really have one. But I think the fact that a man from one of the most marginalized groups in America, not only righted the ship after George Bush crashed it, turned it into an economic boom that this Agent Orange (points to image of Donald Trump on the television behind me) can get away with taking credit for, is a great example of how people steeped in privilege live their lives.

(Laughing) ‘Agent Orange!’ Yeah, that’s the guy. My problem with the whole “fix your own community” ideology is that too many of these people don’t understand how it got that way, how hard it is to change it, and that there are too many other factors outside the black community keeping it the way it is. It’s fucked beyond the comprehension of people who aren’t black. Too many of these experts thought racism was over as soon as Jackie Robinson made it onto the Dodgers.

Yup! They live on TV and don’t know how blacks, or others across the world survive, but they have these opinions on just about everything.

I was in Romania this one time, filming this commercial, and these people passed driving wagons, and I was stuck comparing the anachronism as soon as a current-day vehicle swerved past them. I had no idea of their world. And it led me to a simple concept: when you embrace the humanity in yourself, you can see it in others. That’s what makes me think so many people pushing aside the struggles of others just can’t make that connection. They can’t bridge the gap to show empathy with people they don’t identify with because they don’t understand that we’re all the same.

I feel you, man. One more thing… How do you feel about white people today? You’ve dealt with the stares, the finger-pointing, the name-calling longer than I have. Have you evolved in the way you wanted them to?

I have my antennae up with white people. All the time. I’ve been in groups of whites who actually accepted me for me. The first time it happened, I was just shocked. I couldn’t believe it. Growing up in a society where you’re still a nigger no matter how much you make, who you are, or what you do—when you come upon a group of Caucasians who honestly, earnestly accept you for who you are and will go to bat in your defense, it blows your mind. Ever since then, I give people a chance to fail. I don’t let them ruin my day, either way, but I wait to see what they do. At the end of the day, we’re all animals. But some people let their wild out. Those are the ones who don’t believe in progress. Those are the ones who put Trump in office, and those are the ones who have set us back 60 years, in only two.