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If you like James Earl Jones's story, you might also like:
Athol Fugard,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Ron Howard,
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James Earl Jones's recommended reading: The Song of Hiawatha

James Earl Jones also appears in the video:
Perseverance and the American Dream

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James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones
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James Earl Jones Interview

National Medal of Arts

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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  James Earl Jones

What was it like growing up in a small town in the rural South and Michigan in the 1930s and 40s?

James Earl Jones: It was very simple. Blessedly simple.

James Earl Jones Interview Photo

I think the extent to which I have any balance at all, any mental balance, is because of being a farm kid and being raised in those isolated rural areas. Even in Mississippi there was no immediate concern about social problems, you know. We were a feudal system of our own. Grandpa was a feudal lord, and we all did our work, you know. And there were 13 of us in the household. We were self-sufficient. My grandmother though, began to prepare us in her own neurotic -- and I think psychotic -- way to face racism. So, she taught us to be racist, which is something I had to undo later when I got to Michigan, you know.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

In Michigan it was even more isolated. Nine months of snow! As much as I yearned to flee that when I was a teenager, now I yearn to get back to that simplicity. My son now appreciates that. He's 13; he prefers to be in the country.

What ideas, values or experiences did you bring with you from the rural South, or from rural Michigan, that helped you in college and in your career?

James Earl Jones: There's one I've tried to express before about contentment.

I run counter to the Constitution, which allows for the pursuit of happiness. Well, happiness is kind of something giddy. And from my people, the concept of contentment was what you were after, not to keep up with the Joneses, not to be driven. I mean the idea of lying under a palm tree and letting the banana fall in your mouth, there's nothing wrong with that, you know, and if a wave came up too high, you rolled up the hill, you know. And I'm not saying the virtue of laziness, but the virtue of being easy on yourself. The virtue of finding an ambition that carried with it a lack of anxiety.

We were self sufficient as a people, as a farm people. Even during the rationing period, during World War II, we didn't have the anxiety that we'd starve, because we grew our own potatoes, you know? And our own hogs, and our own cows and stuff, you know. That put you at ease to a great extent. It made you responsible. We children learned responsibility automatically. We worked not because Grampa said, "work," we worked because if we didn't work, the cow's milk would go bad, the chickens would starve and stop producing eggs, and the pigs would yell a lot.

James Earl Jones Interview Photo
Who most influenced or inspired you?

James Earl Jones: More and more, when I single out the person out who inspired me most, I go back to my grandfather. My grandmother had the most dramatic effect on my life because she set me in one direction, and I had to go back the other direction for my sanity, and for my ability to be a social human being. But the more I think about it, the quiet one was the one I think really influenced me, because he taught me the value of being able to listen, not to rush to judgment, being really rational.

I'll give an example. They were religious people. They allowed me to decide for myself, but they were very religious people. Protestants. When we first moved to Michigan...

Before my grandpa built his own church, we went to the neighboring town, and it was a white community. You know, up north, mostly middle European people and Indians, Chippewa Indians. We were welcome to that church, but once we got in, they didn't know what to do with us. They didn't know what to sing, for instance, so they sang "Ol' Black Joe." I mean, it's kind of a hymn-like song I guess, it's a Stephen Foster. Now my grandmother was immediately incensed. My grandfather said, "You know, maybe they don't know what to do with us. Maybe they didn't mean any harm at all. Consider that." So it was then when I began to say, "Well maybe my grandmother isn't always right, and maybe I should not be a rabid racist as she is recommending." Defensive racist, you know? And maybe I should take each person as an individual.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

James Earl Jones Interview Photo
How did you overcome these deeply-held feelings of your grandmother towards white people?

James Earl Jones: Oh, they were always available to me, but I knew she was usually not right. She was usually wrong, and it was a pleasure to see that borne out. Like being a New Yorker, you always let your paranoia serve you. It's the same with being a minority in a so-called racist society. Nobody ever fools you, but you don't assume that somebody's out to get you when you meet them. I came from a world where if you saw a stranger on the road, you said, "Hi!" You waved, you honked your horn. Strangers were important people, and you didn't get anywhere by being suspicious of them. That's the second thing you do, not the first thing you do.

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