Models Monday: Lord Have Mercy (Part II)

Now these young black people are in law school but there’s no evidence that they know anything about the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith, or Autherine Lucy. Ask Elizabeth Eckford about how lonely she felt in 1957 when she tried to enter Little Rock Central High School while having to endure the threat of a bloodthirsty white mob. Maybe these students need to consider how welcoming James Meredith found enrolling at Ole’ Miss in 1962.

What better way of saying we're happy to have you here than with a riot.
What better way of saying we’re happy to have you here than with a riot.

Perhaps these law students need to consider how Autherine Lucy’s experience of fighting to gain entry into the University of Alabama predated the riot as welcoming party that greeted Meredith six years later. If anyone had the right to complain about hostility and estrangement within the context of a learning environment, it was folk like Eckford, Meredith, and Lucy. In the face of outright hatred, violence, and contempt these black students fought back anyway. I don’t disagree with the 33 black law students at UCLA about the white supremacist violence they’re confronting, but I don’t support how they’re responding to it. They’re not clearly presenting their concerns through the language and tools they should be equipped with as graduate students to make it pointedly clear that they are even engaging with problems posed by systems of domination. So while they’re in law school, they’re censoring what they say, in their own film, despite their recognition of the first amendment. Too, you don’t need any of your law school colleagues to like you, welcome you, listen to you, or respect your ideas to graduate from school–and that’s true whether we’re talking about kindergarten or law school. The concerns of these law school students suggest that they want to be liked, welcomed, heard, and respected because they want the perceived perqs of being the teacher’s pet instead of being the outcast and thus recipients of the disadvantages of disfavor. Thus, these students don’t want to dismantle an unjust system, they want this system to work to their advantage; shouldn’t this be a problem for law school students?

Black people don’t have to fight to attend any school in the United States of America because the Brown decision affirmed that segregation in schools was unconstitutional; now, whether or not you feel that you “belong” there is on you. You have a “right” to be at the school you choose, but feeling like you “belong” there is something altogether different. So let’s say that “belonging” to this “community” that you regard as hostile and unwelcoming is something you want, why not agitate against their hostility. These young black students, however, never seem to think that agitation is an option (and they want to become attorneys)–they never seem to think that they can have another idea about their relationship to school. Why can’t they simply “go” to that school and consider “belonging” somewhere else; like somewhere less hostile and more welcoming? It’s a bad idea to think that you’re going to be loved everywhere you go. Ones youthful experience of making friends should have taught you that you have the power to put together your own community of people who welcome and embrace you.

When I was taking those god-awful feminist theory courses with those silly women who wanted to know if they could bake cookies and still call themselves feminists, I never wanted to have anything to do with them; not in class and certainly not beyond it. I wrote more notes to myself about how foolish they were than I ever took notes regarding the material. I had my own community of friends who I could discuss ideas with–and being in graduate school was not necessarily indicative of one’s ability to be communicative over ideas. If you cannot translate your understanding of ideas that matter to those you like, love, and respect then you should feel very insecure about your claim to understanding the material. Working to complete an advanced degree should prepare you to speak to multiple communities, not fewer ones.

Finally, I hate the name of this film: 33. 42 made sense for a movie about Jackie Robinson–but even then, the number represented a person with a name and a legacy much richer than his jersey number. Why would you give yourself a name that references a status that your film describes as degraded and marks suffering without acknowledging an intention to create social change? To that end, identifying with the Little Rock Nine bears witness to the sacrifices of young black people to make this country responsible for honoring its laws for all Americans. These nine students did not have faculty like Kimberle Crenshaw and Cheryl Harris as instructors; instead, their teachers advocated for segregation and state’s rights.  I was recently at an event where Kimberle Crenshaw was the featured speaker and one of the things she noted is that black students seldom take her classes, visit her during office hours, or ask her for letters of recommendation. Even though Brenda Stevenson, Patricia Turner, and Robin D. G. Kelley–to name only a few-are not located in the law school at UCLA, I’m sure those 33 law school students could get with them during office hours…but there’s no evidence that these students even  know who these prominent scholars are; Lord have mercy.

7 thoughts on “Models Monday: Lord Have Mercy (Part II)

  1. A similar project created by black students at Harvard was also recently published. I have to admit I am so frustrated and annoyed with these campaigns. I understand to exist at these institutions can be difficult, but what are these students hoping to accomplish? It seems to me that they want their white peers to accept them. To that point, history and current every day life tells you that’s not going to happen. They just need to let that go!

    So, what do you do to combat this? As you’ve suggested, they can create a welcoming space amongst themselves and their peers. But it seems these students don’t find that to be enough. I’m annoyed that these students have made the nexus of their experiences at these schools about how badly white people treat them. Don’t you have positive, exciting things happening in your life? Why is this the focus? Why are you working so hard to prove yourself to those who continuously insult you? What would you gain from having their respect and acceptance? I’m hoping they take the time to consider these kinds of questions. Maybe then they can find clarity and peace in these hostile environments.

    1. It’s like we’re speaking with one voice! Did you see the article in the Times about those children at Michigan? The hashtag could’ve been interesting by itself. The action that followed with students holding placards of those same twitter responses was incredibly limited. What exactly is the point of this if you’re not exposing systems of domination and how they work in higher ed.? O.K., so you’ve taken a photograph of the neo-Jim Crow signs, now what? The graduate students gave us a photograph of their hate mail but no analysis, no effort to expose anything that remains hidden about the dynamics of racial intolerance and the ways these messages are circulated. What testimony are these witnesses offering?

      Like you, I have no idea why you would waste precious time trying to court people who disdain you and devalue the contributions you make to the community. It would be great if they would consider the kinds of questions we’ve posed–but they might be too worn down from their efforts to become fully integrated into hostile territory. The outcome of that effort seems to be admission into a sorority or fraternity, like that young woman at the University of Alabama, that doesn’t really want you. What kind of achievement is that?

  2. You say so much here, I don’t know where to begin. I will say that we are beginning to see the consequences of an Education system that teaches obedience rather than critical and creative thinking. It is one thing to know of historic figures that have walked before us, opened up pathways to our freedoms, liberties, opportunities, or even possibilities, but it is another thing to do the same for the coming generations. Students must have tools of courage for that, and somehow our academic systems and tattered households aren’t quite preparing our young in this way. Instead there seems a trend of instilling fear, a certain kind of fear, that seems to suggest that you must quietly learn and get yours at all costs—forget about “getting yours” in a manner that might disrupt the status quo. I worry about this mindset as it leaves future generations void of pathways, when we have legacies that have offered us otherwise. I think these students will get there and I am hopeful for their survival so that may insert themselves as change makers into law and legislation.

    You said:

    “Why can’t they simply “go” to that school and consider “belonging” somewhere else; like somewhere less hostile and more welcoming? It’s a bad idea to think that you’re going to be loved everywhere you go. Ones youthful experience of making friends should have taught you that you have the power to put together your own community of people who welcome and embrace you.”

    I hear you on this. I constantly try to instill in my son(s) that they have choices (friends, how they learn, where they learn, etc.). I am thankful for their Montessori environment. They may attend a certain school, participate in a particular activity, one day work in a career that they love but lacks inclusivity, or live in a community or area with limited diversity, but they do not have to allow that injustice, that hatred, that lack of understanding to affect who they are as whole beings and the choices they make in their lives. We do have choices and do not have to “become” what we do. We also do not have to be what society wants us to be. Resistance is crucial, and there are many ways to resist. We can do what we do (learn, work, socialize, etc.), but that is not the total sum of any one of us.

    I do feel empathy for these young people, it is a difficult lesson they are learning (not including their graduate work). Audre Lorde suggested that “our silence will not protect us,” and neither will our education (alone). Clearly these students will not be silenced but I hope they turn their pain and mourning into activism and change. I also hope that we can do a better job of preparing our young people of color in more whole and hearty ways to educate themselves not simply for some false sense of inclusion, not only by book, but also by life experience, and by consulting our history. We must prepare them to live in the skin they are in and navigate, protect themselves in these complex socially, emotionally, and psychologically abusive spaces.

    1. One of the things that I don’t understand, Dionne, is how people convince themselves that some projected, pre-determined sense of what makes life worthwhile actually fits for every single life. As a much younger woman, I had coaches tell me that winning state titles and setting state or national records would have a significant impact on my life. Once I did those things, however, I didn’t feel transformed in the way their prophesies suggested. I couldn’t convince myself of someone else’s truth. I wonder how it is that people ignore their own interior lives? How they can’t recognize the limitations of the numerous advertisements for what makes for a good life as they observe others striving for these things? So what really bothers me about those law school students is that they have not made an examination of life that leads to them having a vision of a better, more just world.

      If it’s one thing that annoys me to no end it’s these law school students who appear to have no interest in justice. Those students gesture towards having some recognition of the trials of exile, but that’s my language and interpretation not theirs. I would have greater empathy for them if they suggested that their experiences of loneliness and estrangement impacted how they gained greater interest in immigration law, for example. Their story,however, never seems to extend beyond their own lives, which seems highly problematic for folk pursuing a profession with a necessarily civic purpose.

      Too, for people who weren’t forced to enter into this terrain, I don’t understand why they can’t or don’t find enough pleasure in the work to make that story worth telling. To your point, those students have choices, they weren’t sentenced to law school at UCLA.

      Despite the very objective way that I relate to these students, I was a very sensitive student–when I was a child. My mother, however, wasn’t sensitive at all. Through paying attention to her stories, I realized, then began to enact this other model as an element of my intellectual journey. So I understand your recognition that these students are likely to change, grow, and mature. As far as stories go, however, the one they chose to tell wasn’t interesting or thoughtful to me. So perhaps, I would’ve been less bothered by a film about the journey as opposed to their repeated refrain regarding their lonely privilege of attending law school. The weight of their burden doesn’t seem as heavy as their predecessors and not nearly as heavy for the innocents serving life sentences or death sentences. While I know it’s wrong to compare experiences of suffering, what I’m trying to call attention to here is the claim bell hooks makes to white feminists when she writes, “I agree that we all suffer, but we are not all oppressed.” Suffering is a fact of life, oppression doesn’t have to be. These future lawyers don’t strike me as folk who recognize the difference between the two. This failed recognition, for me, matches the incompetence of the prosecutors in both the Zimmerman trial and the Dunn trial. In both cases, the prosecutors were ignorant about the ways that race undermined the likelihood of justice for black boys; that black boys are oppressed by the criminal justice system. Lawyers who fail to recognize oppression have very little chance of correcting or addressing injustice.

      As always, thanks for the conversation, EMM

      1. Your points are well taken and I can here the frustration in your words that these students have chosen the pained self-portraiture as a narrative rather than how this realization of a state of suffering has potentially caused them to clothe themselves with a state of mind clouded with oppression, when in reality there is a lot these students can (and dare I say should) do about both of these states.

        And I agree with all of your points on the incompetency of people working in fields that are sworn to a duty of justice. Don’t get me started on the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and the subsequent injustice and insult to injury to these boys’ legacies, their surviving families, and all of those impacted by this state of disgrace in our society. In terms of the law, these young soon-to-be attorneys need to know what the law can do, but also need to critically think about what the law’s limitations, what the law is already doing and not doing. My sense is that will happen. We may not see it on film, but my sense is it will happen. We can not escape this country’s disgraceful past and present. These attorneys will one day have to deal with this.

        I talk all the time with my graduate assistant (a PhD candidate in Communications) about our duty to ethics, equity, and justice in our work and research. We have countless conversations about how any field must grapple with these issues.

        The story these students have chosen to tell appears shortsighted and self-centered, but I suppose what might we expect from a contemporary culture promoting just that? It will take some self-reflection for these students to rise above and move forward. Again my sense is that many of them will. However, the reality is that some will not make it due to some self-inflicted injury and due to circumstances. That too, is a reality.

        I too was a sensitive (and bright) child. My mother understood that, knew how to love me, and armed me with experiences and engaged me in thoughtful discussion as best she could. Truth be told, she is still doing that with me. I am grateful and do this with my three sons. I need certain truths to come from me, my husband. I do not trust society’s delivery. And as an artist and educator, I am just as sensitive of an adult (smile). More over, I could not be an educator if I didn’t have a hope that these students will seek mentoring or that mentoring will take place, that someone will suggest to them readings that will frame their lived experiences in a context of history and tell them that in that “privileged state of suffering”, they do not have to wear oppression, but they do have a duty to work towards justice.

        My hope is that these students will come to terms with their pain and suffering (it is valid) but that they will look outside themselves to consider the myriad suffering and systematic oppression Michelle Alexander writes about in “The New Jim Crow”. And where there won’t be mentors, I hope these students find it in themselves to seek out figures that can guide and advise them not just on surviving this temporary state of suffering but to embody a justice speak and law practice that can begin to change the course of people who will never make it to a top tier law school, or college, or even out of high school for that matter.

        The question is what are the messages we need to give to our youths that will teach them how to take their lived experiences and turn it into thoughtful practice, application, not just a testimonial of suffering? The testimony is the beginning, but there is more work to do.

        I hear the concern that there is little reflection in this piece and more self-centered frustration, that possibly after law school, students may forget all about their experiences and go on to making their six-figure incomes and keeping up with everyone else in those privileges spaces, but I want to believe that I hear something else. And that these students by making this film will begin to draw in wisdom from elders and those in the field. I want to think that just as I spend countless moments mentoring undergrad and graduate students, someone will say to each of them, “Hey, let me sit down with you and frame this space, let’s talk about this and beyond this…”

        This film, again seems evidence of what happens when we are not honest with our children of color; when we do not talk about race and systems of oppression (primarily because the mainstream is uncomfortable talking about it), and convince them that all they need is an education and an elite school to escape. This denial is what continues to crush our youths as they do break away into intellectual spaces (because of course they are capable) and they face the slow tearing down of their character and presence, or they realize they are the only ones, or they sit among a certain sense of privilege, but had no idea that their privilege will never compare to that of their racially, economically, culturally privileged counterparts. This film seems to just begin to rip off the bandage, and open up the wound. My expectation is that now that the pain is exposed they will heal with a new sense of purpose and a desire to do the work they have been called to do.

        These younger generations are only in the beginnings of self-actualization, and dare I say that college is the place for that. However, I do hope that they do not stay on self, and rise to a greater purpose for what can be done with law. My hope is that all 33 of these students keep talking to each other, to elders, to those less fortunate, to those different from themselves and begin building character, armor, resilience, and purpose.

        This is the problem with raising our babies to pretend we are in a post-racial state of grace. This is what happens when we deny the real fabric of the legacy of this country. This is when we are too comfortable with visiting those privileged intellectual spaces but have forgotten what it took or who it took to get there. I look to the elders, to parents, to mentors, to stop singing only the praises of our youths and offer them critical conversation and myriad experiences that will show them, while they may be on a pathway to “excellence” they can not escape what is already written in our history that plays out everyday in our present. Once they have that in mind, remind them of the responsibility.

        As always, a rich and thought-provoking conversation with you EM.

        1. I hear you, Dionne, critical consciousness certainly takes time and effort. I also like your point about being honest with our children about both their strengths and their weaknesses. As a result of them being endlessly praised, it’s very difficult to have gained practice in learning to make an honest self-assessment.

          Artful, critical conversation is certainly necessary for the kind of growth we’re invested in. It’s clear to me that little of that takes place. American Promise offers two great examples of this. The “conversation” taking place in those classrooms where students make isolated remarks about the same topic, but never address the views put forth by their peers. There’s no effort towards teaching those students to offer their interpretation of what ideas put forward, along another to confirm or to clarify their point of view, and finally contributing an additional view, idea, critique; they were just talking as if there was no audience. Too, the parents featured in the film don’t model a conversation for their children. They depict a conversation as a set of instructions, a series of procedural claims, and an array of remarks meant to silence. It’s true, having experiences in conversations of the sort you name seems to be a rarity or a kind of privilege that I’ve overlooked.

          It’s got to be possible that those law school students can grow, so I’m going to cast my lot with you and hope for the best 🙂

          Take Good Care, EMM
          P.S. I imagine that there are plenty of typos in my response so please give me some grace as I’m readying my so for school 🙂

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