Legally Black: On Law School and How it Feels to Be a Problem

Note from the editor: This post is the first in a series featuring the experiences of black girls doing grad school across various disciplines. 

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, how does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town…or, do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, how does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

 

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,–peculiar even for one who has never been anything else….”

–W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

 

How does it feel to be a problem? I started law school on August 24, 2016 and in each of the 63 days since then, I have been confronted with this question in one form or another. It’s in the way that I am simultaneously the most visible and invisible I’ve ever been. It’s in the way a white man turns to me to ask me to clarify something the professor said and then in the middle of my explanation, finding it inadequate, he turns instead to two other white men to get the answer because there’s no way I could know. It’s in the way that when discussing the readings or the lecture in a group, I am almost certainly interrupted each time I open my mouth. It’s in the way that someone makes a joke about “house slaves” while we’re talking about a school-wide auction. It’s in the way that everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats when the 13th amendment comes up. Or the way that your professor casually throws out the term “Nigerian scammers” to illustrate a point about contract law. It’s in the way that when you read the cases, you, and people who look like you, are either absent or construed as deviant misfits, incapable of following the law and unworthy of its protection. How does it feel to be a problem?

It’s in the way that a professor completely avoids talking about an affirmative action case although we’ve talked at length about all of the other cases and instead, to demonstrate the concept, he shares an anecdote from his time at a firm. It’s in the way that after a discussion on Stand Your Ground Laws, someone thinks it appropriate to ask the question “But what if statistics were to show that Black people really do commit more crimes and are more dangerous, then fear of them would be founded right? (Read: Black people are decidedly more dangerous and criminal than others and therefore them dying at the hands of vigilante justice or state sanctioned violence is justified). It’s in the way that in an environment that prides itself on collegiality, I’m afraid to say “Hey! My colleagues are hurting me and I really don’t think they’re trying to be my colleagues at all and some of them kind of suck as people.”

How does it feel to be a problem? As I wrestle with this question, I wrestle with myself. I wrestle often and in silence. I shrink. I hide myself. I have moments where I feel less than (I get over those quickly though; Mom and Dad didn’t raise no fool). I find myself trying to be “less.” Less vocal. Less woman.  Less hurt. Less loud. Less real. Less Black. Less…me.  And that, my friends, is a mistake of monumental proportions. Because the world, and certainly the legal profession, needs less people who struggle to see the humanity in Black life and more people like me. I thought by exercising silence in the face of not-so-micro-aggressions, I was practicing, preparing myself for what life as a Black woman in the legal profession would be. I was content to “get used to it.” I was content to let myself be turned into a white man. So often as people of color, we believe the only way to get where we’re going is to appeal to white sensibilities. We call this “playing the game.” But sometimes I think that we’ve forgotten it’s a game. Sometimes I think it stops being a game and becomes the accepted way of life. We begin to believe that there is no power, no success, and no value in being just who we are. And that’s scary. Because by believing and continuing to act as though the only power worth having is without, we render ourselves impotent, forfeiting the power within. I’m gonna get  a little gospel here for a second but when God has prepared a seat at the table for you…He didn’t prepare that seat for who you try to be or who other people want or expect you to be. He’s called you to that place and that time to be just who you are and just who He made you to be.

With this in mind, I turn my thoughts toward a new inquiry: How does it feel to be a solution? I ask this recognizing that I am both problem and solution, existing all in one. See…Harriet Tubman was a problem. Ida B. Wells was a problem. Fannie Lou Hamer? Problem. Ella Baker? Problem. Marcus, Martin, Malcolm? Problem, problem, problem. Each of them and certainly the names of the many, many, many other Black people who refused to “get used to things,” were seen as problems by a society who desperately wanted them to be complacent and accept the status quo. Instead each of these individuals and the many faceless people behind racial progress in this nation, insisted on being a “problem.” Despite all that it cost them, they understood that the cost of complacency was far greater.

Because of them, I can. We can. When Martin had a dream, he didn’t have it for himself, he had it for his children and their children and their children. Now, I’m certainly no Martin (my policy on nonviolence: he who throwest the hands may also catcheth the hands…God is still working on me though), but I do have to hold on the hope that my dream and my presence in a space that was never intended for me, will make it easier for my children and their children and their children. Make no mistake, we are in perilous times in this country. We are living in a time when people are desperately trying to cling on to the “great American past” (Read: the time before Black people and women were recognized as full human beings…although sometimes its questionable if we even think that now but…I digress). This desperation has expressed itself in dangerous and frightening ways. There are days when I feel utterly hopeless about the state of race relations in this country (a lot of days in fact). But we cannot afford to be hopeless. We cannot afford to be silent.

We cannot afford to be complacent.


About the author:

Kelsey. First year law student at the University of Virginia. Lover of all things pink. Always in an empire state of mind (even though I’m in my fifth year of living below the Mason Dixon). Whitley and Dwayne are my fave. My parents are pretty cool, too. Dwell in possibility.

 

Week 12, or Deadlines and the Digital Humanities

With November just around the corner, I can’t believe the semester is almost over. It seems like yesterday I was walking aimlessly around the basement of Swem library trying to find the Omohundro Institute on the first day of training. It seems like I just handed in my first assignment with trepidation and tried desperately to manage my work. Now, with barely a month left in the semester, I’m finally reaching a point where I believe I’m working efficiently, but I am also now mildly panicking because I have only about five weeks to write 3 papers which are all in the 20-25 page range.

Well, at least, I am, if nothing else, a very gifted organizer and time manager.

I spent the last few days hiding at my parents’ house, where, when I wasn’t hanging out with them and indulging their love of having yard sales, I managed to get all of my week done for the entire week. Mostly, I attribute this surge of energy to the fact that my cousin is coming to town this weekend to spend time with me, and I really didn’t want to be thinking about all the work I had to do while she’s visiting. Functionally, however, it’s time to get to cracking on my papers.

The more reading I get done now, the more time I have to write. My thought is that if I then start reading for the next week this week, I’ll have Thursday and the day Friday to write. Fortunately, my reading load has lightened, as my popular culture and power professor isn’t holding class any more this semester, after this Tuesday, so as to free up his students to do research and write. If that isn’t kindness, I don’t know what is.

The goal is to have something written by the next time I check in, but, you know, we’ll see how that goes.

Despite finally feeling like I have a firm handle on my work, I’m still doubting myself. These feelings of doubt only doubled on Tuesday, when the apprentices sat through a talk with an editor at OI who made it plain what his feelings were on blogging and digital publications. Essentially, he said don’t waste your time writing for publications like the Junto or other blogs– spend your time working on getting your writing in peer review publications.

Now, I knew that there were people in academia who don’t care for digital scholarship. But in the same way I knew there were Trump supporters, I suppose I had just never encountered one. I typically only spend time with people who are like-minded. (Read: my friends think blogging and digital humanities are really cool.) Really, it’s like any other kind of bias– you’d almost never tell someone who’s into digital scholarship that they shouldn’t publish on webmags, web journals, or other blogs, on the grounds that it’s pretty disrespectful. It’s dismissive of their academic interest.

I had to remember that history as a academic discipline operates under a lot more constraints than does an interdisciplinary field like American Studies. All of my professors are encouraging of the pursuit of blogging and writing for webmagazines, first, because they know it brings me joy, and second, because they can see value in alternative forms of scholarship.

In a logocentric world, I understand why academia values print publications. There’s something inherent in us as a Western, literate society that can only conceive of true knowledge as printed. And even while disciplines like American Studies deeply value other forms of knowledge, there is still a need to try to articulate the knowledge of forms such as music, theater, visual art in words, on a sheet of paper– when in my opinion, if the artist wanted to articulate their knowledge as such, they would have just written a novel or an essay to start with.

Vehicles of expression are nothing to me but different languages. If you want to find knowledge in art, study the visual. If you want to find knowledge in music, listen to music. And, if you want to have a conversation about art, there’s nothing wrong with writing it, but I also think there is something even more valuable about inserting yourself in the conversation in the “language” of choice. I engage with my favorite artists by learning their style, their signatures, and then  making it my own, fusing our knowledge to create something new. That’s why sampling in African-American music is why of the most fascinating phenomena I’ve ever encountered. It’s why the Black Monologues, a theater production University of Virginia students have recently begun producing into an annual event, can speak to a truly diverse audience populace, though written solely by university students between the ages of 18-22. They incorporate all types of knowledge, from literary giants, to musical greats, to inspiration from television shows, to poetry, to dance, to create something visual that expresses the kind of scholarly knowledge about the African-American experience that most people assume can only be adequately  articulated in a monograph.

Sometimes, it’s bigger than a page.

Sometimes, the written word is not adequate.

Expression and “true knowledge” should not be limited by what has conventionally deemed acceptable.

My expression of my knowledge on a blog, or in art, or in a comic, is absolutely no less valuable than when I articulate that same knowledge in a scholarly article.

It is honestly such a shame, that in light of everything this country has been going through with the acceptance of difference, diversity, even in terms of something like scholarship, is not accepted.

I guess it’s a blessing then, that I’ve learned that I don’t need acceptance from others to validate my knowledge. I am proud to be both a scholar and an artist, wreaking havoc and subverting expectations ’til the end of time.

 

Week 11, or Ravynn and the Coffeehouse

This week I was really missing France, French and the community of francophiles I surrounded myself with in undergrad. We discussed the Lumiere brothers in relation to visual culture in my Intro to American Studies class, I led a discussion on Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” and then I walked home from the grocery store with my recyclable bag filled with fresh veggies for my dinner. With a pang, I realized I was deeply missing one of my favorite parts about France: the cafe.

The French coffee shop speaks to my soul in a unique way. It’s the perfect intersection of introversion and extroversion: one may go to a cafe to be alone among others. It’s the perfect place to see and be seen. During my brief stints abroad, I spent most of my time posted up in a corner of a nearby cafe, nursing a cafe au lait, peering over the top of my book at the passersby. I was my best self in cafes; I was comfortable because I was in my element. As much as we want to call Starbucks a “coffee shop,” the vibe just isn’t right. It’s too…commercial. So, I’m always in search of coffee shops that are independently owned because the independent coffee shops are as close as I can get to my beloved French cafes.

I’d been aware of the Black owned coffee shop in Williamsburg for a while now, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t visited until this week. In search of some desperately needed recharging time, my friend suggested we spend the  afternoon at the Coffeehouse and before I knew it, I was in love.

Quaint and quirky, the Coffeehouse has the kind of character that I love in independent coffee shops. It felt like I was walking into someone’s house because the walls were filled with pictures of the owner’s family and staff, all smiling and happy. The menus were carefully written on chalkboard along the top of the wall behind the cash register. Dozens of containers of diverse coffee beans lined the opposite wall and the staff knew most everyone that walked in by name.

The shop is owned by a man named Charles, who is without a doubt, one of the best and purest people I’ve ever met– despite only having interacted with him about three times, I know can tell what a good person he is. He makes sure to speak to every costumer that walks in and he gets to know at least a little bit about them. He prides himself on his shop being a haven for grad students like me and my friends to come and relax, and is more than willing to do whatever he can to improve the quality of our lives. Without a moment’s hesitation, he agreed to let us host a Black graduate student event in the shop and smiled broadly at the suggestion that we turn his shop into the William and Mary’s Black grad population’s version of the Pit.

Having spent the majority of my time at UVA hiding out in the Outreach Office of Admission, where everyone had invested interest in me, I was so excited to find the Coffeehouse. This off the beaten path coffee shop may become my hide away, the place where I feel safe and cared for. Like my Outreach family, the shop owner is very open about his trials and tribulations, and because of this, he has nothing but compassion to offer to everyone who enters his spot. Though I’ve only been to the Coffeehouse about three times now, I feel like I’ve been going there my whole life.

All that being said, I think this leads to a very important piece of advice for succeeding in grad school: try your best to find a space where you feel safe. Having a hide away for when things get to be too much will get you through many a bad day. With end of the semester stress looming, I’m a lot calmer knowing that I have somewhere to go and unwind, and a new friend to talk to.

My attempt at joining the Academy