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Dear 33 black law students at UCLA,
I saw the video you made Feb. 10 — apparently in honor of Black History Month – about how “stony the road” has been for you all while trying to earn your degrees.
The video is well done, has gone viral, and is apparently generating substantial sympathy from several black people and probably some whites. As somber piano music plays gently in the background, you all are shown one by one pleading your cases about how “bitter the chastening rod” has been.
“I have to plead my humanity,” one of you says.
“I feel like I’m from another country – a European Country,” says another
“A lot of pressure… A lot of weight…Feels like I don’t belong…Unwelcoming and hostile.”
“It’s so far from being a safe space, that staying at home would be better for my mental health…”
“I have to police myself.”
“I’ve never felt the burden to have to represent my community until I came to law school.”
Lonely? Pressure? Burden?
You all are enrolled in one of the most prestigious schools in the country, which means you are among the best and brightest. Most of you are hopefully preparing to enter the criminal justice system, where your black perspective is sorely needed. Certainly you are all familiar with the book, “The New Jim Crow,” where attorney Michelle Alexander shows how prison has become the new plantation for black and brown people. You witnessed George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin. And now “stand your ground” has deadlocked a jury on whether to convict Michael Dunn of murder in the shooting death of Jordan Davis. But instead of “facing the rising sun” and marching on, you turn a video camera on yourselves and whine?
Don’t misunderstand me. I actually get where you all are coming from. You see, growing up in the late 70s and 80s in Brooklyn, NY, I went through a traumatic academic experience. I was bussed away from my black low-income neighborhood to predominantly white middle class public schools. In middle school when we “bus kids” (that’s how they labeled us) stepped out onto the streets, we faced a gauntlet of screaming mad grown white folks spewing hateful threats of death for attending their school. We bus kids had to plead our humanity. We felt that we were in another country. Our parents told us that we had better police ourselves because we were representing our entire race. And to think, we were only children.
Have you all had it so good up until now perched upon the shoulders of previous generations that have sacrificed for you that you are now rejecting your birthright? How can your feet already be weary at “the place for which our father’s sighed?”
Sorry, but you’re not facing pressure. You’re facing your duty. Pressure is sneaking into the plantation down the road to set your wife free. Pressure is going to war for America in the hopes that your death will enable generations of black children to live free. Pressure is raising five children on your own in poverty because your deadbeat husband split.
What pressured W.E.B Dubois at Harvard into becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D.? What burdened Paul Robeson while being an all-American athlete, multitalented artist and scholar at Rutgers who went on to earn a law degree at Columbia University? What loneliness drove Jane Bolin to not only become the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law, but the first black woman judge in the United States?
“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered…”
Here’s some advice that helped me when I was “the only one” while earning a master’s degree at the University of Arizona and even now as I pursue a doctorate at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Look to the past for inspiration. Read essays by African-American Jeremiads such as Maria Stewart and David Walker. Read poems like “I too Sing America” by Langston Hughes and “We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Sit down and really digest “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (a.k.a The Black National Anthem) by James Weldon Johnson, who, by the way, was also a lawyer:
“…Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.”