The Mute World (Politics & Society)

The Privilege to be “Candid”

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I was in college, one of my friends did a semester exchange at Columbia. When she returned to campus, I asked her how her learning experience there compared to her experience at our university. As some of you might know, I went to Howard University, which is a historically black college (HBCU). With all of the constant debate surrounding the merits and relevance of HBCUs, I asked her if she had felt that Columbia’s curriculum had been more rigorous or difficult and if she’d felt that she had learned more.

“Not really,” I remember her telling me. “If anything, I feel like they are still debating the existence of issues that we (at Howard) already acknowledge and are trying to figure out how to solve.

Over the past year and a half that I’ve spent at an “Ivy League” law school, that conversation has come to my mind many times as I sat in numerous classes and went to events where I was forced to listen to “intellectual”  back and forth around controversial topics. “I can’t believe we are still talking about this,” I would think. Or better yet, I can’t believe the superficial way in which we are talking about it. What can we do about it? What are we doing about it?”

One of today’s controversial topics of choice was affirmative action. In just a year and a half at this institution, I have already had more “discussions” about affirmative action than I can stand–not counting all of the years I had to hear about it before I even got here. And understand, this is not a post about affirmative action, because, guess what: I don’t want to know nor do I care what you think about it. Really, I don’t. Many of you don’t like it: I get that. I only ask that you stop subjecting me to your feelings about it.

Some people might argue that discussion is essential to forthcoming action. I disagree. I don’t think that a bunch of (mostly not “of color,” urban, or poor) legal scholars sitting around in a room pontificating about the constitutionality of a policy that many people in the room can’t stand is doing anything to address educational disparities in urban and/or poor communities of color. I’m not even convinced that educational disparity is the main issue, but I digress… However, I do know that little third-grade Charlie, whom many people feel so comfortable talking about but have never met, probably doesn’t care about whether or not the Supreme Court used “strict scrutiny” to analyze a case that might affect his future.

One scholar argued that affirmative action actually inhibits the educational experience because diversity discourages “candor.”

“Wow, that’s really funny,” I thought. “You’re sitting here saying my presence discourages candor while you proceed to tell me all of the reasons why I don’t deserve to be here. And even though you don’t think I deserve to be here, you’re not interested in investing in educational opportunities for me or people like me to succeed elsewhere. Okay, great…So, what exactly are you holding back?”

Am I supposed to be grateful that my classmates haven’t forced my peers and I to walk around wearing “AA” on our foreheads?

During a Constitutional Law class last year as we discussed affirmative action, someone argued that the policy had a negative effect on the experience of minority students because, whether or not they said it to our faces, behind our backs, everyone said we were affirmative action targets anyway. Well dang, there goes that darn diversity destroying your opportunity to be candid and tell me to my face that you don’t think I deserve to be here…until we have a forum, a guest speaker, or God-forbid a Con Law class, that is. As we both sit in these halls of intellectual privilege, I would hate for you to be deprived of your right to point out my community’s flaws because we all know that you get a commission, sense of pride, vindication….”Wait, hold up? What exactly do you get from it?”

“What do I get from it?”

“What does third-grade Charlie get from it?”

Wait, wait, wait. Maybe I’m being too superficial. Maybe we get perspective from it. Maybe we’ve changed some people’s minds, made them understand. Still, somehow, I doubt that because this is the  fifty-leventh time that we’ve discussed it and I’m still hearing the same arguments and I still get that you don’t like it.

What if I said that I don’t like it either? What if I said that I’m not the begging type, and I don’t want to be anywhere that I’m not wanted? What if I said that my friend was right and that I’m not surprised that we can’t come up with solutions to these problems because in 2014 you’re still debating the validity of the connection between poverty and educational performance? What if I said that I don’t feel like debating my intelligence, worth, capabilities, identity, or my culture and that I don’t have to? What if I refused to? What if I realized that no one else ever has to do that? What if you did too?

I know that not everyone will understand this. Not everyone will understand why I get so worked up about this. They’ll think I’m defensive or sensitive, and they won’t get that this is not about my personal offense. I’m a pretty self-reflective person who is able to admit my insecurities–and I promise you that this is not one of them. I know exactly who I am and what I’m capable of, with or without mainstream metrics of achievement. Rather, it offends me that certain people think that it’s okay to tell other people what they think their place and/or problem is: the rich telling the poor, New Yorkers telling Texans, etc. Who is anyone to do that? What do they know? It’s a presumptuous audacity with which I will never be comfortable.

As I contemplated the argument about the relationship between diversity and candor, I thought about my experience at Howard, where we were able to have a wide variety of discussions on controversial topics and to speak with a freedom and sense of community and understanding that I only now fully appreciate and greatly miss. While I found myself shocked at some of my classmates’ values and opinions, it was there that I truly learned that diversity had to do with a lot more than skin color. I honestly don’t think that we felt comfortable discussing things because the majority of us were African American. I think we were able to talk because most of us came from similar positions (in the eyes of society, if not in class distinctions) and had a genuine interest in wanting to see things change and improve. We all had something to gain from the progressive motion of the universe.

So, that’s how I know that candor does not come from homogeneity, it comes from privilege–feelings of freedom, security, justification, and confidence. Worse than that, oftentimes candor has no purpose. Someone gets to say something just because it’s on his mind, regardless of its accuracy, relevance, or tangible or emotional effect–that’s what some people confuse as their First Amendment right. It’s the difference between being able to discuss solutions to problems and being forced to listen to diatribes of cultural superiority couched in legalese. Unfortunately, I have come to the realization that not everyone gets to be candid because some people have more to lose than others.

Standard
Mutations (Reflections on Life)

1L, 1W: Reflections on Completing My First Year of Law School

Law School Textbooks

Law School Textbooks (Photo credit: Jesse Michael Nix)

Being the pensive, sometimes overly-sensitive, semi-nerd, stereotypical artist-type that I am, at the end of my freshman year in college, I wrote a reflection on the lessons I’d learned that year. I intended to record my personal growth that year, and then they became amazing reminders of my overall personal growth so I continued all the way through graduation.They started out as Facebook notes, (remember those?) and then last year I decided to move the reflection to my blog. Given the whirlwind personal, academic, mental, and emotional year this transition from undergrad to law school has been, I could not let the tradition die. So, complete with quotes from cases that stood out to me (not in the correct citation format, of course, because I won’t be studying the Bluebook until much later this weekend to prepare for the Writing Competition), here are the lessons I’ve learned this year:

1. “Liberty must include the freedom not to conform.” Justice Brennan, Michael H. v. Gerald D. The most important lesson I learned this year was how to maintain myself in the midst of a lot of things that were “not me.” Like any other profession or activity, there is a legal “culture” that I was understandably oblivious to before I came to law school. There are traditions, expectations, priorities, rules, and values that I had to figure out a way (and am still figuring out a way) to make comport with my own.

I had to remember my voice, my perspective, and the importance of others like it, that don’t always get the chance to be heard. Those voices are the reason I came to law school. So, I had to figure out how to keep those voices in the midst of many other different voices. I had to combine my creative writing style with the required legal writing style. I had to keep my passion while displaying my pragmatism.

Even outside of the classroom, I had to figure out how to maintain a balance between doing the things that make me me and doing the things that I was required to get done. I decided that I want “attorney” to be what I do and not necessarily who I am, so I really had to ask myself what I was chasing and why I was chasing it. As much as I thought I had mastered the art of work/life balance–undergrad is work hard, play hard, right?–this year showed me otherwise. I had never had to do anything that required my attention, in some shape or form, seven days a week (especially first semester). It was physically and mentally exhausting at times, and I literally had to learn to remember myself. I had to eat when I was hungry, sleep when I was sleepy, and watch Scandal and Friends reruns when I was finished.

Interestingly, while I hadn’t had the work or life experience of some of my peers, throughout the year I felt like every experience I had ever had prepared me for law school. I might not have been a paralegal, but my creative writing helped me with my legal writing. The time I’d spent on stages singing and/or performing poems made oral arguments and getting called on at random a lot less stressful. Most importantly, the people I had behind me, the memories I had, and the tough lessons I’ve learned about myself and the world before I got to this point all gave me the confidence and the motivation that I needed to keep going. So, ironically, I found that by remembering myself I was able to push myself forward.

2. “The timorous may stay at home.” -Judge Cardozo, Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co. aka “The Flopper” Case. In addition to remembering myself, it was also difficult to put myself out there to meet people and make new friends. I’m someone who has to warm up to people before I can really become friends with them. I’m also not someone who enjoys hanging out in large groups, which can make making new friends difficult. Still, I honestly think that staying true to who I am  helped me make the friends that I was meant to make, and I do think that I made quite a few good friends this year. Even better than that, I made friends with people I never really would’ve expected to make friends with before this year. My horizons were definitely broadened. I made friends with people I almost never agree with. I found that the people who share my values and interests weren’t always the people who I expected them to be. I found that the people who appreciated me and looked out for me weren’t always the people I expected them to be, and those revelations were some of the greatest moments I’ve had this year. I also really appreciate those people for respecting our differences and for embracing me for who I am.

3. “Conquest gives title which the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny, whatever the private and speculative opinions of individuals may be…” Justice Marshall, Johnson v. M’Intosh (FYI this quote/case made the cut because it’s the case that appalled me the most this year.) I take this quote, from possibly the most politically incorrect case I read all year to say: when you succeed, nothing else matters. More importantly, success is however you define it. I have learned this lesson before, and I learned it again this year. There is a lot of noise in the world. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to tune it all out and keep charging forward. No one and nothing can have power over you if you don’t allow it. I have always said that there is no such thing as competition because what God has for me is for me. Competition means you’re looking around when you should be looking forward (or depending on your beliefs, looking UP.) There is only hard work and the blessing of opportunity. Being secure in yourself and in that fact makes everything else irrelevant.

Last but not least, I learned important lessons about gratitude and appreciation this year. I don’t think I ever realized the importance of a support system as much as I do after this year. So, thank you to everyone who has had my back. This applies to old friends and new ones. From my old friends, I appreciate every text message, every phone call, every Skype session, every Facebook message, every hug, and every prayer. Thank you for letting me cry when I needed to cry and for listening to me complain.Thank you for reminding me of who I was when I needed it. Thank you for pushing me forward and always being available when I needed you. To my new friends: figuring out what a friend is and how to make one in law school has been interesting, so I truly appreciate you guys. Thank you for taking the time to get to know me and thank you for allowing me to get to know you. Thank for listening to me preach and for indulging me when I got on my soapbox. Thank you for helping me through the trenches. Congratulations to us.1 down, 2 to go!

I’m looking forward to the rest of the journey…

 

 

 

 

Standard
Mutations (Reflections on Life)

I’m Back: Did You Miss Me?

Image Courtesy of Dreamstime.com  It’s crazy to think that my last post was sometime in October, but now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense because law school started getting a bit real right around November. So I apologize for the delay, but I’m happy to report that I have officially completed my first semester of law school! So, for the next two weeks at least, I’m free to get back to doing the things I love (like writing, blogging, watching movies, and reading books for pleasure) without experiencing pangs of guilt for not studying something.

As I write this, there’s a Cosby Show marathon on Centric, an A Different World marathon on TVOne, and a Roots marathon on BET, so I’m pretty sure that all three of those networks decided to conspire to give me the best Christmas present ever this weekend. I’m also pretty beside myself with the notion of being able to watch all of them separately and at the same time with no other pressing responsibilities to consider.

On the more intellectual front, as my first non-legalese read in about four months aside from the occasional newspaper or magazine article, I’ve just started reading Zadie Smith’s new book NW. Surprisingly, despite all the great things I’ve heard about her work, this is my first Zadie Smith read, so although I’m enjoying it so far, I’m eager to formulate my own opinions about her work.

I also can’t wait to go see The Central Park Five Documentary, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, and The Hobbit. I know Django and Les Mis haven’t come out yet, but has anyone seen any of the other ones I mentioned yet? If so, what did you guys think?

Of course, the artist in me is eager to get back to my own writing. I’ve experienced so many different emotions over this past semester that are bound to find their way into a poem or two, now that I have a little bit of time. I’ve also had random characters running around in my head, so I may even start working on a short story. As always, depending on how much of that I actually accomplish and like, I may share some of that with you.

As for what the last four months have been like, there are so many things that I could say about this past semester. However, in keeping with this theme of enjoying getting back to being me-me and not just law student me, I will just say that I honestly really enjoy law school. I enjoy what I’m learning. I enjoy learning how to think about concepts and the world in different ways. I think I did a fairly decent job of not letting it completely consume my life and carving out time for myself (even though, as I said, I did have to sacrifice some things, particularly as the semester progressed).

I can say that even more than the information I’ve acquired, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I can honestly see how each stage of my life has been crucial in shaping the person that I am right now and the way that I respond to law school. I can see how 13 years of Catholic school (and especially my middle school) taught me discipline and focus that especially came in handy in law school. I can see how my artistic and performance background led me to actually enjoy the Socratic method of being called on at random. I can see how Howard taught me hustle, self-confidence, pride, and the importance of playing an proactive role in my education and going after the things that I want and need.

Most importantly, not that I didn’t appreciate them before, but I’ve come to really appreciate my support system over these last four months. The phone calls, text messages, g-chats, Skype dates, inspirational emails and everything else from my friends this semester have really kept me going. This was definitely a period of transition, and my friends and family did a great job of listening and just generally doing their part to remind me of who I am and what my purpose is when I needed it.

Anyway, as the smells of Christmas cooking fill my house, I’d like to wish everyone a happy holiday season! I’ve missed this. It feels good to be back and I’ll try not to disappear too often.

Standard
Mutations (Reflections on Life)

Packing Light but Doing Heavy Lifting: On Leaving for Law School

Image Courtesy of Dreamstime.com

On Sunday, I leave for law school. Everyone keeps asking if I’m excited, but I’m reluctant to characterize the range of my emotions in a single word like that.

So, how do you tell someone “I’m actually about to do what I’ve been saying I was going to do since I was 14, and I still can’t really believe that I was 14 eight whole years ago and that I graduated from college 3 months ago, and although I was feeling pretty restless and stifled there at times, now I’m about to move to a new city, with new people, and embark upon what everyone has told me are going to be some of the most challenging years of my life, yet every time I read a newspaper I get giddy and depressed at the same time because I keep coming up with reasons why I’m needed, and hopefully within the next 3 years I’ll actually be equipped to help out” ? You say: “Yeah, I’m excited.”

In the midst of juggling these emotions, I have to pack. I have to select which aspects of my life are necessary and portable, and most importantly, which aspects are necessarily portable, who is necessary and portable and necessarily portable–even if their move won’t be physical. In a way, I’ve been doing that all summer, but now that it is coming down to the wire, it feels different.

Of course, you take the obvious things like clothes, although I’ve been wondering if I should have gone shopping for more “lawyer-like” clothes. I think I have enough suits (both pants suits and skirt-suits) from previous internship and career fair days, but what do law students wear? To be completely honest, I don’t really care. I ignored the world-famous “fashion show” that occurred on my own undergraduate campus for four years, so why start paying attention now? Or should I?

Luckily, a lot of my essential, heavy duty items are still in storage, where I left them after graduation, so I don’t have to think about them, but there’s that artist part of me that can’t neglect the symbolism of bringing things from my old school to my new school. Will they sustain me or keep me trapped in the past? Will they make me feel warm and fuzzy and remind me of all the times my friends and I stayed up talking about life until 3 a. m. on that same couch in what we used to call “The Den” or make me cry my eyes out as I sit on it alone in my new apartment realizing that they are all gone and I have to go participate in “ice breakers” if I want to find a new group to do that with (after studying until 2 a.m., of course)? In reality, I won’t be getting all new accessories and furniture anyway because there is tuition to be paid, so….all of this sentimental debate is not even an issue.

Then, there are the things that make me me, like my books. Yes, everyone tells me that I will want to burn every book I own once I start law school because my eyes will begin to water (and maybe even bleed) at the mere sight of a group of letters grouped together in a specific phonetic sequence in an attempt to formulate a word, but does that mean I’m supposed to leave Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones behind? What about Derrick Bell’s The Faces at the Bottom of the Well? (I mean, he was a legendary legal scholar.)  Then there are my notebooks–because what’s a writer without her notebooks–and my radio and my stuffed animals (yes, I’m 22 and they still come too, sue me).

But the most interesting items I’m taking with me are the ones I didn’t expect to have to carry. A few weeks ago as I was sitting on my front stoop, a neighbor of mine, who has lived in the backyard of his mother’s nearby house my whole life, walked up to me. It was clear to me from both his walk and his brazen entrance into my front yard (which he has never done before) that he was high or drunk or both, but mostly, I could see that he was in a deep state of reflection. He told me that he had heard that I had graduated and he said that he was proud of me.

I thanked him. He asked what I was planning to do next, and I told him that I’d be going to law school. “Oh, I’m going to need you!” he laughed.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that line every time I told someone I was going to law school, I could’ve paid my tuition for all three years, five times over, but I try to appreciate the expression of pride that I know is intended with each statement, as well as the earnestness and the life behind it.

“Will you defend me?” he asked.

“Will you remember me?”

“Don’t forget me.”

I told him I wouldn’t forget him, and that I hoped I wouldn’t have to defend him, but that I would, if need be.

He leaned in closer to me and grabbed hold of the banister, as if to keep himself steady. “You know I wanted to be a pilot?” he asked.

“No, I never knew that.”

“Yeah, I went to school for a while. At the city college, downtown, you know?”

I knew where it was.

“I didn’t finish though. I couldn’t pay, and then I messed my life up.” “You can see that.”

I was silent, trying to figure out where I was supposed to keep this regret he was handing me. I decided I would  wrap it in understanding of life’s difficulties and tie it with a bow of gratitude for my blessings and opportunities, but where to put it?

This past weekend I went to a family barbeque. Technically, I will not be the first lawyer in my family. I may, however, be the first lawyer on the side of my family that raised me, the one with which I am most and best acquainted.

“You going to law school?!” my cousin-uncle exclaimed. (Yes, cousin-uncle. Cousin is his relation. Uncle is his title.) “I’m going to need you!”

Wish for a nickel. Laugh, nod, understand, appreciate.

“She gon’ put our family on the map,” he announces to my mother, in between bites of his hamburger. “This girl…she’s already done it.”

He’s my favorite cousin-uncle. I am happy to make him happy. Proud to make him proud. He gives me a big hug before he leaves and turns to look at me one more time before he walks out of the door. “No pressure,” he says and smiles.

No pressure. Where do I pack family pride and reputation? Will it fit?

My other cousin is a few years older than me. We don’t see or speak to one another very often, except for at family functions. She tells me she cannot believe I have already graduated from college, asks me what I studied, says it feels like just yesterday we were celebrating my high school graduation. We talk some more and she says she admires me, says she tried the school thing and doesn’t think it’s for her, isn’t sure what she will do now. When her friend comes over later she brings him right over to meet me.

“This is my cousin, the one I told you about,” she tells him.

“Oh yeah, the one who went to…”

“Yeah, that one…” she finishes. “She’s going to law school now.”

He shakes my hand.

I am shocked. I made an impression on someone I  only see twice a year? Enough for her to tell her friend about me? At the end of the night, we exchange phone numbers and she says she’ll add me on Facebook.

And then there are the graduates. So many of my former classmates with whom I graduated high school and college are already out here on life’s seas, some rowing without a paddle. My friend tells me she has been feeling depressed lately because, like me, she is a perfectionist semi-control freak and so far her life isn’t going the way she ever thought it would go. I tell her not to despair, that there are many different roads to success. She tells me I am right and to “go get ’em, girl!”

If I stick my generation in my suitcase, will I have to sit on it to zip it closed?

And I thought packing the right wardrobe was complicated…HA! I’m going to need a U-Haul.

Standard