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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

(In)Sanity, Thy Name is Woman (Or, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall)

According to a recent New York Times article, the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 for short) has eliminated five of the current ten personality disorders. Perhaps most noteworthy among the personality disorders to be eliminated is narcissistic personality disorder. (They are also planning to jettison, among others, histrionic personality disorder. Maybe good riddance to that one, as some of the symptoms seem oddly gendered. Consider that sufferers often: "act or look overly seductive"; are "easily influenced by other people"; are "overly concerned with their looks"; are "overly dramatic and emotional", are "overly sensitive to criticism or disapproval" and believe "that relationships are more intimate than they actually are". (Hmm. Sounds like WAY too many people I know.)

In an age that is chock full of people babbling loudly on cell phones about the mundane details of their private lives while riding in crowded public conveyances, and twittering and facebooking and blogging (!) endlessly, it is wonderfully ironic that narcissism is soon to be dead letter from a clinical perspective. The “me generation” has breached the defenses and taken over the fort (asylum).

The problem, apparently, is that the tuna net of narcissistic personality disorder was catching up too many dolphins in its diagnostic mesh. Being excessively self-absorbed is not really enough for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. Instead, a special kind of self-absorption is required:

--a grandiose sense of self, meaning a serious miscalculation of your abilities and potential that is often accompanied by fantasies of greatness.

--an expectation that others see your superior qualities and tell you so (mirroring)

--extreme sensitivity to personal slights coupled with an insensitivity to other people’s points of view

According to the author of the Times article, most people with narcissistic personality disorder are men. This is perhaps not surprising. Despite the fact that women are often considered vain and self-absorbed, the truth is that there is very little social space in which women may engage in pompous, bombastic, self-aggrandizing behavior. Even calmly assertive, self-confident women who insist on speaking their minds are more subject than men to being told to “just shut up.” (Ever wonder why there aren’t more women bloggers?) Silence becomes her. After all, it wasn’t very long ago that the symptoms of one form of insanity specific to women included “talking incessantly”, self-amused laughter, obscenity and complaining of “imaginary wrongs”.

A perhaps not unrelated story in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted that women athletes may be more likely to have concussive head injuries overlooked.

According to the Chronicle piece:

"Male athletes, though, often reported cognitive symptoms like amnesia or disorientation after a suffering a concussion—signs of head trauma that are not easily overlooked. Female athletes, by contrast, often had neurobehavioral symptoms like drowsiness, or somatic symptoms like sensitivity to noise.

The female athletes’ symptoms, the report cautioned, could be more easily missed than the male athletes’ symptoms. They could also lead sports-medicine staff members to attribute them to a different condition—anxiety, for instance."

So, sports-medicine staffers notice if you seem really out of it, as male athletes apparently often do after head trauma. But if you have more subtle symptoms such as drowsiness or noise sensitivity, as women sometimes do in cases of head trauma, the symptoms may be missed altogether or attributed to “anxiety.” Women can be so high strung (as well as vain and self-absorbed). Anxiety, concussion—gee, who could tell the difference? Certainly not the narcissists among us; they generally avoid the helping professions, and when they do engage in them, they tend to focus on their own opinions and not the complaints of those whining patients. How many times have you been asked "How much pain do you feel? [stage direction: show patient picture of sad face, neutral face, ecstatically happy face; ask her to circle one] and thought that you were getting through to anyone with your reply?

I hope that some of the really useful personality disorders such as OCD will continue to be available to us. After all, it has become a mark of intellectual distinction (if not cool and sexy) to be OCD (a sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder). The image that used to come to mind was of Lady Macbeth walking around mumbling "out damned spot" while rubbing her hands together. Now we think of brainy, "revenge of the nerd" college (or ex-college) students who turn hours of seemingly repetitive programming tasks into billion dollar Internet businesses.

Time to end this; my mirror is waiting.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Who’s Sorry Now is Like the Corners of My Mind (or, Connie Francis meets Gladys Knight and Mashes-up Public Memory)

A New York Times headline recently trumpeted that Virginia Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, had telephoned law professor Anita Hill at her faculty office and left a message. You can read about it here. Odd behavior, to say the least. And by odd behavior, I don’t mean the fact that Professor Hill reported the call to campus security or that her university reported it to the FBI. Under the circumstances, I consider the call vexing and harassing. The proffer of an “olive branch” is usually used to symbolize peace, not to figuratively re-assault the victim.

I teach the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill matter in my Race & Racism class and in a class called Law in Literature and Film (we do non-fiction as well as fictional depictions of law in film in the latter class. I spend quite a bit of time discussing, though, whether even televised hearings are truly non-fiction, unvarnished “truth”, given issues of editing, staging, camera angles, etc.). I am always astounded to find that so many students are not at all aware of what had occurred during the Thomas confirmation hearings until we study it. (“Oh,” one student said in a recent class after understanding what had occurred, “Is that why Justice Thomas is always so quiet?” I have no answer for that, really.) My eldest children were very young (younger than some of my students) at the time of the hearings, and yet my children have a very clear memory of the events and a good understanding of what went on based on what they learned as they got older. Given the disparities in shared knowledge about this event, such knowledge (and such memories) begin to feel personal and narrowly cultural rather than public and broadly social. They seem to depend on the particular focus of ones home or educational community.

Public memory can be tricky, as I've determined from exploring it in other work. It is often viewed as static and unchanging, and is typically concerned with forging a collective sense of what to remember and how to remember it, and is often a significant component in forging identities both individual and collective. But public memory, as one scholar writes, is subject to the “history, hierarchies, and aspirations” of a particular community, and is therefore often anything but static. At its core it is both contested and contingent, and the contest is frequently between the “official culture”—that which exercises hegemony, and the “vernacular culture”—informal, unofficial, subsidiary cultures.

In my classes we talk about how the Clarence Thomas hearings started off asking questions about fitness to serve, and ended up as a he said-she said assessment of “truth.” There was no resolution of the truth question, unless you count confirmation as vindication, and I’m not sure that you can. Time has passed, and memories fade or are reshaped altogether, especially where somebody (but who?) should be sorry.

I have to agree with the scholar who wrote: "Memory is more likely to be activated by contestation, and amnesia is more likely to be induced by the desire for reconciliation."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Publication of To Kill a Mockingbird

This past July was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird. Recently I participated in a radio show to celebrate the anniversary. You can listen to it here. The show was a wonderful opportunity to reflect not only on the book itself, but also on the ways in which some of the themes addressed in the book, racism, classism, the role of gender in shaping identity, even access to education, have and have not changed over the last half century. When I first read the book in my late childhood, I was focused first on racial issues, especially on the prosecution of Tom Robinson, and next, on how Atticus Finch, the protagonist, represented what was good and right in America, standing firm in his convictions even in the face of adversity.

However, over the years, especially as I have used the book (and the film based on the book) as texts in law teaching, I see the book and the characters differently. I think that the true hero of the book is Scout, the child narrator who delivers the tale. Scout, because of her age and gender, is able to move between the worlds of black and white and of male and female. Her relative social unimportance allows her a veritable cloak of invisibility from which she can see and hear and thereby gain what comes close to an omniscient knowledge of her community and its people. Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a white woman, becomes, with every successive reading, a distant symbol, a cipher, someone who must be convicted and who must die, however unjust such an outcome may be. Tom is, however, no “magic negro” as there is no magic in To Kill a Mockingbird. There is only a finely-wrought and complex sense of truth, but it is a truth that falls well-short of despair. To Kill a Mockingbird troubles the notion of thesis and antithesis often seen in discussions of race, whether fictional or real. Scout and the other children in the book illustrate this, for they are more real than many of the adult characters. They are flawed and imperfect, but joyous, passionate and ultimately just. They are the antidote to our 21st century postmodern, poststructual, and allegedly post racial world.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Welfare Cheese, the Working Class and the Tenure Class (or, the Cheese Stands Alone)

I attended the Third National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference a few weeks ago. It was a wonderful event; it was well-organized and intellectually stimulating and offered a broad array of presentations. The National POC is an event that began in 1999 with the coming together of the several regional People of Color Legal Scholarship Conferences. The focus of the national event, like the regional events, is to provide a forum for law professors of color (and other professors with interest in issues concerning law faculty of color) to present scholarly work in an intellectually rigorous but warmly supportive atmosphere. I have long credited the POC conferences with my success in academia, and by success, I mean the fact that I am still here. M’la; m’ap kenbe toujou, as they say in Haiti.

During one of the dinner events at the National POC, I was tickled when one of the speakers referenced welfare cheese. There was a brief wave of laughter, ranging from polite titters to hearty guffaws. It struck me all of sudden: some of the people there not only didn’t know what welfare cheese was, they’d probably never eaten any. Welfare cheese (aka government cheese), for the uninitiated, is cheese that is provided to recipients of welfare and/or other means-tested benefits. I first heard of it, and ate it, during the 1970’s and was mighty glad to get it. Welfare cheese makes awesome grilled cheese sandwiches. I know well what welfare cheese is, from personal hard luck life stories. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who looks like me knows what welfare cheese is from personal experience.

In fact, research shows that highly educated people, even of various racial or ethnic backgrounds, are disproportionately from the middle and upper middle classes or the wealthy classes. This is perhaps nowhere more true than among university faculty members. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the fact that few studies focus on working class or lower class students and faculty members. While there is some data regarding the economic class of students, apparently no comparable data exists for college faculties. I think that all too often, even well-educated people conflate race and ethnicity with social class, assuming that if, for instance, efforts have been made to bring in faculty members of color then by necessity this means that social class diversity has been achieved. This is, of course, not true, and has never, I think, been widely true. While programs offering greater access to education and other social goods over the last forty years have meant greater racial, ethnic and gender diversity in some workplaces, I might argue that some of the people from underrepresented groups who were helped by such programs were already middle class or very comfortably working class, and had been for a few generations.

Of course, such discussions raise the issue of just what it means to be middle class versus working class. For some people, working class means having parents or grandparents who didn’t have a summer home (seriously; someone shared that with me once.) For others, working class means rarely enjoying mainstream cultural events and knowing no one with a college degree, despite having consistent access to necessities such as food and shelter. Never mind what it means to belong to the poverty class. Poverty class means more than lacking some material comforts; it means lacking necessities and having a near absolute deficit of social capital. Social capital is the stuff that dreams (and educational attainment) are made of. Very few people in academia, it would seem, have ever belonged to the poverty class. This is due in no small part to the fact that access to advanced education takes a good deal more than a bright mind and hard work. It takes a startling array of economic and social resources, and these resources are frequently deployed from the time a person is born.

The discussion of social class in academia reminds me of the not unrelated discussion of the future of tenure in the academy. Some people see the tenure system as a hindrance to good institutional governance, since it is sometimes hard to compel tenured faculty members to embrace change. Others see tenure as necessary for insuring an independent minded, intellectually vibrant academy; faculty members who serve at the will of administrators would be little likely to engage in research or teaching that might offend established norms. Both sides have good points. But what often goes unaddressed in discussions of tenure among tenured faculty members themselves (who, not surprisingly, usually favor the tenure system) is the meritocratic assumptions about the nature of the institution. People who have tenure, or are on the tenure track, deserve those statuses, right? Serial adjuncts and faculty members on contracts often don’t have the same privileges, but if that’s true, it’s because people with tenure (or access to tenure) are smarter, work harder, and are just better, right?

Not right. While there are frequently well-articulated, reasonably objective standards for getting tenure (or for getting on the tenure track) what goes unexamined is the practical barriers to meeting the standards and most shamefully, the sometimes differential ways in which the standards are applied. Looking only at legal academia, it is noteworthy that a majority of persons who work as instructors but are not in tenure or tenure track jobs are women. One reason sometimes offered for this is that faculties often recruit nationally for tenure track jobs, and women are sometimes less able to move around easily to accept such jobs. That is true, yes. But all too often what starts out as a national search for tenured or tenure-track positions ends by settling on a local candidate who is, all too often, surprisingly like the majority of people already in place from a gender and racial perspective. There are other barriers as well. Even when women succeed in getting on the tenure track, they are, according to research, likely to have less prestigious jobs and earn less money than men with similar (and often lesser) credentials.

I could go on and on here about class, both inside and outside of academia. There is a lot to say; these are, after all, long-standing problems. Talking about class makes many people uneasy, since in many ways it raises a challenge to ideals of merit. All the more reason we should talk MORE about it, not less.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What I Did on my Summer Workation: A Woman’s Work and Woman’s Worth (Or, Who's Afraid of Lolita Lebrón?)

Happy Labor Day.

I’m back. I have been underground this summer working on several projects. I spent much of the summer in the Virgin Islands, where, though it may be hard for many people to believe it, it is possible to have an awesome workation. A workation is like a vacation in that you go away from your usual place of abode, but when you get there, you set up office and work as much as (and often more) than you would at your regular office. Famous writers engaged in workations all the time—think about those stories of people going up to abandoned cabins and writing world famous treatises and novels. Though I got a lot done on my workation, I don’t think I quite achieved literary greatness.

My workation has been over for several days now, and my regular work begins anew with the commencement of the academic year. Why, I’m even working especially hard today, on Labor Day, though perhaps ironically so. I am mostly doing research for scholarly papers, which I call work, but the meaning of work is relative, I guess. I was reminded of this by my daughter, who is in the process of finalizing an essay about the meaning of Labor Day (I am grateful that my daughter's teacher has eschewed the more traditional "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay; some kids, as was true for me as a kid, did very little and went nowhere, and so such essays can be sad reminders of the summer void). She is using a set of encyclopedias that my mother bought in the mid-1980’s for her grandchildren, both existing and future. My mother came from an era and a culture wherein knowledge was absolute (at least the knowledge written in books was)and forever. A set of encyclopedias should be valuable, she thought, until they fell apart. To forestall the latter, she bought the more expensive leather-bound set.

The books seem to have been published in 1980, and they have a decidedly ideological bent. First, nowhere in the article on “Labor Day” did they say that it was a celebration of “workers”. Instead, it talked about when such observations began in the United States and the parades that went along with such celebrations. The entry closed by indicating that Labor Day is celebrated in Europe on May 1, and also celebrated on May 1 “with great official gusto in the Soviet Union and other Communist-ruled countries.”

Wow. I urged my daughter to look up the word labor in order to get a fuller sense of what Labor Day is about. Again, I was fascinated that the word work did not appear until several paragraphs into the article on labor. The entry on labor begins: “Labor may be defined as the physical or mental effort of human beings for the attainment of some object other than pleasure. Simple as this definition is there is scarcely a word in it but what has been subject to discussion. The popular use of the word restricts it to those who engage in manual toil but this is of course too narrow. Any scientific definition must include mental effort. In modern industry brains are needed as well as muscle.”

Wow again. The author seemed to be fearful that somehow readers would more quickly equate labor with, say, digging ditches, than with “brain” endeavors such as, say, leading a multinational corporation. Well, I guess I’m safe; no doubt that my “mental effort” counts as “labor” under this definition.

Though I mostly kept my nose to the book and my hands to the keyboard this summer, a couple of interesting things that happened during my workation this summer got my attention.

On August 1, 2010, Lolita Lebrón the Puerto Rican nationalist died at the age of 90. Lolita Lebrón is best known for being part of a group of nationalists that in 1954 opened fire on the United States House of Representatives, wounding five Congressmen. Ms. Lebrón served twenty-five years in prison. After her act, she was either revered or reviled, hailed as a heroine or as a terrorist, depending on your point of view. In either case, she made history in the United States, and is worth including in any review of the noteworthy events of the 20th century.

The death of Ms. Lebrón struck me especially because in my life I have been aware of only two famous Lolita’s: Nabakov’s Lolita and Lolita Lebrón. When growing up I hated my name once I understood what Nabakov’s Lolita symbolized in the minds of many. I recall being a teenager and sometimes getting leers from middle-aged men who became aware of my name. I often mumbled my name to avoid snickers and lewd responses. I learned about Lolita Lebrón when I was in college and I was asked my name by a history professor. When I told it to him, he asked, “Lolita, as in Lolita Lebrón?” When I said that I had no idea who she was, he told me. I was shocked, first by the audacity of Lolita Lebrón’s actions, and next, by the fact that I could have gotten to college and not known that the United States Congress had been fired upon at all, and that it had been fired upon under such circumstances. For those wondering, no, Lolita Lebrón does not appear our encyclopedia. She is, I think, way too scary for either the encyclopedia or the standard school curriculum.

The other summer event that got my attention occurred on August 26, 2010, when we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in the United States. While the fact that women in the United States have not always had the right to vote is probably far better known than the story of Lolita Lebrón, not enough people acknowledge just how big a fact women’s suffrage is. When women were given the right to vote, it was one of the largest enfranchisements in United States history. Moreover, as an Op-ed contributor to the New York Times reminds us, several states opposed the amendment and some went to the Supreme Court to invalidate it. Despite the rejection of their claims by the Supreme Court, some states waited decades to ratify the 19th Amendment: Maryland until 1941, Virginia until 1952, Alabama until1953. Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina ratified the amendment between 1969 to 1971. Mississippi ratified the amendment in 1984.Wow again.

I decided to peruse our encyclopedia to see what it said about women’s rights or women’s suffrage. The closest thing I found was an entry on “Women’s Liberation”. It begins: “‘Women’s Lib’” would have delighted the 19th century theorists of feminism, but it differs in its aims and philosophy from the women’s rights movement as the Black Power Movement differs from the Negro rights movement.” It goes on a short while later: “Unlike the 19th century women’s right’s groups, Women’s Lib is revolutionary rather than reformist….It urges women to unite in sisterhood, as blacks and workingmen have been urged to unite in brotherhood, to overthrow the oppressive order by sheer weight of numbers , and by force of various kinds, such as demonstrations and boycotts, rather than by persuasion or legal action.” Wow oh wow. This is real, folks.

After my most recent encounters with this set of encyclopedia, I had formed the idea of discarding them. I was scandalized with what seemed to be its pure ideological cant. But then I recalled that my mother had spent a lot of very hard earned money to obtain them, and that it was one of her last gifts to me before she died. I also recalled that my mother sacrificed a lot to send me off to college, and that college was the beginning of my journey to becoming a scholar. Scholars work to promote an open exchange of ideas. Even when ideas are disputed or ultimately discredited, scholars should not fear ideas with which they disagree or the books that contain them.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Remembering Marie (Or, Marie’s and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity)

I am Very Busy these days Writing and Editing Important Work. I have no time to blog these days, and certainly not today. However, my mother is making me write this.

For those who know me, this may seem surprising, since today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of my mother Marie. (Marie was not her real name, but it’s what we called her, for a host of simple and complicated family reasons. I even insisted that it be put on her tombstone along with her “real” name.) In the past, in the years shortly after her death, I marked the days coming up to it and the anniversary itself with copious private tears, with the tears getting more private with every passing year. Big girls (and certainly not big boys) are not supposed to cry, right? I have, correspondingly, trained myself to cry less at her memory. Even now when I cry I think of how my mother used to complain about my crying as a child. I was the cryingist and whiningist child in America, she used to say. My crying and whining by themselves didn’t so much upset my mother; it was the reasons that I cried and whined. Like many children, I cried for many minor matters, assuredly. But I more often cried for things that were beyond my own personal childish grievances. I was always wanting things to be better and different, big things, things for everybody.

So, for example, I used to cry when my mother had to go off to one of her three jobs. I wondered why she had to work so hard and be gone all the time. (I remember, for example, overhearing my mother confiding to a friend that one of her employers owed her a dollar and a quarter from a previous week. She then spent at least half an hour trying to answer my query about what a dollar and a quarter was and why it mattered so much. Once I understood, I ended up crying because I didn’t want us to need the money. ) I didn’t understand that the days of my infancy and early toddlerhood, when she had no job at all and was with me much more of the time, were some of the worst days of her life. As a teen-aged mother she had struggled every day in a home where she contended with her own mother and with a community that looked down on her.

Later, when my mother sent me to live with my aunt while she, as she called it, “got her life together” (she eventually remarried and then spent time smoothing the way for her children to join her in her new home), I used to hide in the closet at my aunt’s house and cry. I cried not only because I felt abandoned but also because my mother couldn’t live like the mothers I read about in Dick and Jane books. When I was finally able to rejoin my mother I almost never cried in front of her. I had learned many things during my time away from her, among them that it was best to be as little trouble as possible if I expected to fit into her new life. She had enough troubles of her own and really didn’t need the added burden of dealing with America’s cryingist and whiningist child. The only time I remember crying in front of my mother between third and twelfth grades was when we were in an auto accident together when I was 14. During those years my tears were in private at all times, and even in private my tears were more like prayers, fervid supplications that my life and her life would be better at some point in the future.

When Marie died I cried incessantly for months afterward, so much so that my toddler twins used to take up stations on either side of me and pat my back while chanting “Don’t cry mommy, don’t cry.” Except at Marie’s funeral, however, I never cried public tears. Mostly I cried at home in front of my children. I suppose that some would say that tears should especially be hidden from young children, so as not to upset them. I felt the opposite, though. My tears were a signal to them and to myself that I was at home and they were at home, and that at home grief should no more be hidden than happiness. Moreover, I cried at the realization that besides me my children now had no other female relative in the world who would adore them, and I blamed myself for somehow not having a large, loving family to give to them. I cried the most at the realization that Marie’s life, and my life, had finally gotten better, and she wasn’t here to enjoy it.

Today for the first time in many years I cried just a little, even with full freedom to give voice to my sadness. Instead of crying I laughed a lot at the joy her memory evoked. In the years right before her death, when I was first starting off in law practice, I began to put away the stoic pose of my late childhood and college years and had taken to sharing with Marie the trials and tribulations of my work life. Marie, bless her soul, would have none of it. At the beginning of any such conversation she would ignore my complaints and engage me on what she felt to be the truly important stuff of life. “What did you eat today?” she would ask. When I persisted on complaining about something at work she would grow exasperated. “Why are you upset about these things?” she would ask. “Don’t whine, work. I raised you so that you could be in a position not to kiss anybody’s [behind. Though Marie could be as polished as a wealthy suburban matron in public, she could at times curse like a sailor when the situation called for it.] Work hard not only for the sake of hard work, but so that you can get out if you must. Vote with your feet.” Then, my mother would go back to her conversation about the real substance of life. “Now, what did you eat today? And did you spend some time outside today?”

I thought at first that the reason my mother refused to engage me in the details of my professional life was that it was too alien for her, too far removed from her own life. My mother had, after all, scarcely attended a regular high school, having studied much of the time at a “continuation school” for pregnant girls and later finishing up at a night school. But I figured out that this wasn’t the reason at all that my mother behaved this way. She was not well educated, but she was certainly bright. She understood the details of my lawyer’s life. The fact was, she understood them better that I did. What she understood was that as important as I thought that my professional life was, it was but a shadow of the seemingly simple but immensely rich and complex internal workings of my personal life. Only when that personal part of my life was well founded could any of the rest of it come together.

I am reminded of a book that I came across recently called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Roger Taylor. In it the authors discuss one of the lesser-publicized aspects of Einstein’s life, his personal interactions with black people. Notwithstanding the almost shocking absence of black people from the movie “IQ,” a light-hearted fiction that portrays aspects of Einstein's life in the town of Princeton, there were a significant number of black people living in the town during Einstein’s years there, and he had close associations with many of them. The book offers insights from many members of Princeton’s black community on why Einstein was seemingly so comfortable in the black community, both within Princeton and outside of it. It was more than a great man’s admiration for a “simple” folk; after all, he counted among his friends some of the most brilliant and accomplished blacks of the day, such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. What, I think, made Einstein so comfortable was that just walking around Princeton’s Witherspoon Street black community and talking with the residents there about apparently small things, as Einstein often did, made his own scientific work make sense. Such walks and talks were, I would argue, the real stuff of Einstein’s life. As one respondent in the book wrote about Einstein’s walks in the black community, there “he was free.”

So, my mother Marie, like Einstein (she would be tickled by the pairing, because she would know that it was, at the same time, improbable yet highly probable), understood that if life could not be reduced to its smallest elements, then larger structures, such as Law and Science, stood in peril of toppling.

Rest in peace, Marie.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Examined Life at Age 8 or 98: Dorothy Height Rest in Peace

The New York Times reported today that Dorothy Height, Activist, Educator, Civil Rights Leader, and quintessential black feminist, has died at the age of 98. You can read the NYT obituary of Dorothy Height here.

Miss Height (and she was a Miss, not a Ms.; Dorothy Height reminded us that words such as “miss” and “Negro” need not be relegated to the dustbin) was for 40 years the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Many people are aware of her work as a quiet but determined worker for the cause of black progress. Far fewer understand that she was also instrumental in helping to forge bonds between black and white women and between people of differing religious beliefs. She championed causes both large and small, and was a counselor to presidents as well as an advocate for the rights of poor children. As the New York Times reports, for much of her early life she was pushed to the background by the male leaders of black civil rights groups and the female leaders of white feminist groups. But she kept working nonetheless.

The report of Dorothy Height’s death follows close on an article in the New York Times about Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College and his program that teaches philosophy to young children. You can read about it here. Professor Wartenberg uses common children’s books to introduce children (many of them apparently children of color) to basic philosophical inquiries, including aesthetics, ethics and metaphysics. It is Professor Wartenberg’s belief that these children, and all children, have the capacity to understand philosophical ideas and to put them into practice in their daily lives. He is quoted as saying: “A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline.” He goes on to say, “But everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.” In this regard, Professor Wartenberg’s work is of a piece with that of Dorothy Height. Dorothy Height embodied, perhaps better than anyone of her time, Socrates’ (and later Robert Nozick’s) notion of the examined life, for hers was a life involving public discussion of and engagement with life issues both great and small. Moreover, and more importantly, hers was a life of active service to both the great and the small. She reminds us that the seeming proliferation of fake progressives is not new, for there is nothing new under the sun. Our times now call for the same thing called for in Miss Height’s early career: eschewing labels and limelight and putting our shoulders to the wheel to effectuate genuine change.

Miss Dorothy Height, rest in peace.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Root's "The Blackest White Folks We Know": What is Race?

Recently I commented on The Root's "The Blackest White Folks We Know" over at Feminist Law Professors. You can find my piece here. Below is the intro:

Before I begin, let me announce in advance: even as a progressive, Race and the Law teaching, feminist black woman, I DO have a sense of humor about race, gender and other matters of identity. Really. I’ve even been known to laugh at things that some people find distinctly unfunny. Take for example the “mockumentary” film Borat that I recently watched again for the nth time. I find it hilarious...

It is a follow-on to an original post by Feminist Law Professors' Bridget Crawford, posted here.

Check it out!

Want to Comment? Please do! Comments are moderated so may not immediately appear.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Courage of Her Evictions (Or, Working on a Night Move)

A recent New York Times article on eviction and low-income black women offered the following:

"New research is showing that eviction is a particular burden on low-income black women, often single mothers, who have an easier time renting apartments than their male counterparts, but are vulnerable to losing them because their wages or public benefits have not kept up with the cost of housing.

And evictions, in turn, can easily throw families into cascades of turmoil and debt.

'Just as incarceration has become typical in the lives of poor black men, eviction has become typical in the lives of poor black women[.]'"

While job losses and the bleak economic picture are to blame in some cases, and tenant misbehavior in others, as the article point out, evictions sometimes occur when tenants complain to authorities about housing violations, making landlords angry. Eviction in these circumstances may be a textbook case of retaliatory eviction, which is, under certain circumstances, a defense to eviction. However, it is sometimes difficult to prove the reasons for an eviction, and, as in many legal matters, poor people of color often lack the resources to raise such defenses. Eviction appears to play a significant role in the cycle of poverty that traps some black women, but, unlike the attention given to foreclosures, evictions sometimes go unremarked and there are few bodies of data enumerating them. Indeed, one challenge to accurately counting evictions is the fact that a large number of evictions are not court-ordered—many people under the threat of eviction move before the process is completed. Some people still engage in what we in my childhood called a "night move"—moving out under cover of darkness to avoid the embarrassment of being seen by neighbors (or the landlord) when there was no hope of getting current on the rent. My aunt, with whom I lived for almost two years, was a night move professional. With her own ten children and the extra children (like me) that she often had residing with her, affordable, suitable housing was a continuous challenge. Note that engaging in a voluntary "day move" doesn't necessarily mean that all is well in your life. My mother used to tell me stoically of the morning that she smiled and waved my father off to work, then packed her personal items and her two children to get away from an abusive relationship. My mother firmly believed that women in situations of domestic abuse did best to avoid confrontation and to disappear while the abuser was away. Sadly, some types of domestic violence "day moves" feature the removal of the entire household even when abused persons don't wish to move out. As the New York Times article remarks, sometimes landlords evict tenants who have made domestic violence reports to police out of fear that authorities will somehow hold landlords liable for tolerating such disturbances.

As the article indicates, some temporary government programs have offered subsidies to those facing crisis in rental housing. The larger, longer term problem, however, goes unaddressed: housing represents a substantial expense even for people with middleclass incomes. This is even more true for the poor, as the cost of housing sometimes means choosing between shelter and food, clothes or medicine. To quote from the article:

"A minimum-wage worker may gross little more than $1,100 a month; a welfare recipient in Wisconsin receives $673 a month, while two-bedroom units start at about $475.

'On $673 a month, how do you buy tennis shoes for the kids, clean shirts for school and still pay your rent?'"




Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog: Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Rent (Or, That Old Black Magic)

Happy New Year.

Over the recent holidays I went with my family to see the Disney film The Princess and the Frog. As many of you know, it features a character who has been billed as Disney's "first black princess," Tiana. My whole household had eagerly awaited this as we are to a person enamored of magic and are especially fond of Disney animated magic. My daughter was particularly keen on going, not because the princess was going to be black but because for her any princess is a good thing— I am of like mind (yeah, I'm just a girly girl at heart). That's why I was so sorely disappointed at the film. Movies are supposed to be fun and escapist. This movie struck me as just the opposite, and it has taken me days to mull over my feelings. (Warning: some spoilers below.)

Tiana is established at the outset as a shadow princess, one who is eclipsed by an actual princess. The film opens with two little girls, one white, one black, sitting and listening to a story. Charlotte (rhymes with Scarlet), the white child, is depicted as spoiled and demanding but cute and sweet (gee, how to be all of that at once?). Charlotte is dressed in princess finery while Tiana, the black child, bears but one indicia of royalty: a crown that seems to have been borrowed from the white child. As the scene expands we learn that the story is being read by the black seamstress mother of the black child and that the black child has accompanied her mother to the large, beautiful and indeed almost castle-like home of the white child in order to make for the white child yet another of what we learn are oodles of fine dresses. Job over, the seamstress and her daughter exit and go out and catch the street car back to their modest home in the black part of New Orleans where we see that Tiana is part of that now elusive social phenomenon, the Intact Black Family. Yes, there is a Dad! But he conveniently disappears early in the film, apparently a casualty of World War I. Nobody says so exactly, but the characters seem to sigh over a picture of Dad in his Doughboy uniform and intimate that he isn't coming back, offering an extremely fuzzy epitaph. Combat death is just too real for the folks in the Magic Kingdom--so I'll say it for them, borrowing from Joseph Conrad by way of T.S. Eliot—Mr. Dad, he dead. Of course, being orphaned or partially orphaned is a common trope in fairy tales. But why introduce the Dad at all?

We are in New Orleans during the period circa World War I. There is even a shot of a character reading a newspaper headline about Woodrow Wilson (also vaguely disquieting for me—Wilson had some not often enough discussed racial baggage of his own. See e.g. the segregation of federal jobs during the Wilson administration.) Now, if you're going to feature black folks involved in magic, New Orleans seems like a good choice what with voodoo and all (note that voodoo can be of the black (evil) or white (good) magic variety. ) But New Orleans also has all kinds of other unfortunate associations, lately starting and ending with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I reckon though that what they could really use down there right now is some magic, so, what the heck. The problem with establishing the movie in so well-known a contemporary locale is that it cuts into the fantasy like a knife. I don't know about other viewers but my mind was boggled by scenes suggesting a significant degree of interracial social interaction. I have read that New Orleans was in some ways more racially progressive than other parts of the American South, but depicting, for example, mixed race public dining seemed not quite credible. The dining scenes are crucial because we learn that Tiana, even as a child, was a gifted cook. She grows up to work as a cook and waitress at a restaurant where she dreams of owning her own restaurant and she painstakingly saves money towards it. Yuck, money. Is this a fairy tale or what? As one of my sons commented, introducing money into this tale imparts a nasty element of reality. It's one thing to dream (and Tiana's dream was, I have to say, pretty pedestrian for animated fantasy) but it's another to have to work to amass coins towards achieving a dream.

Just as Tiana grew up, so did Charlotte. Charlotte is now a spoiled (but still sweet and friendly—we don't get to dislike her; she's the real princess, after all) big girl who apparently demands and receives everything she wants from Big Daddy. A foreign potentate, Prince Naveen, is coming to town and Charlotte plans to have Big Daddy throw a big party for him at her big mansion in order to romance and marry him (Charlotte has got way bigger dreams that Tiana). Naturally Charlotte will need the services of a great cook so Charlotte comes into the restaurant where Tiana works and engages Tiana to make a large number of beignets for the party by tossing several pieces of paper currency at her. Yes, Charlotte throws bills. (Table dance, anyone?) This money is pivotal for Tiana—she is now, we learn, close to having the money she needs to obtain a building for her restaurant. Of course, like any good fairy tale, several obstacles come between Tiana and the purchase of her building, including racist realtors (In an alternate version of the tale perhaps they could cast Big Daddy and Charlotte as FHA testers or straw purchasers).

Prince Naveen is worthy of much more commentary than I have time to offer in this blog. After reading some of the summaries before seeing the film I wondered how a black princess could vie with a white woman for the same beau. Even in the new millennium interracial romantic relationships exist at the social margins. The prince's name, "Naveen" gave me some hint of what was to come— "Hmm," I thought, "Are they bringing in a guy from India?" Prince Naveen, it turns out, is a light brown guy from a fictional country with a sort of Latin sounding accent (It turns out the actor who voiced Naveen is Brazilian.) There was obvious confusion here on the part of the Disney folks. Which way to go? They couldn't have the white princess trying to romance a black guy. Neither could they have the black shadow princess romancing a white guy. Answer—go for racial ambiguity. Moreover, Prince Naveen's status as a royal is just as ambiguous. Naveen is a Prince without Portfolio—he has been disinherited by his royal parents for being a lazy spendthrift and has come to America to marry into money. Prince Naveen and his white handler?/valet?/pimp? (more ambiguity resulting from entrenched racial hierarchies —a white guy who is subordinate, yet not) are, in effect, seeking to pull a fast one over on poor Charlotte.

The scheme is further complicated by magic performed by a black villain called Dr. Facilier, aka the Shadow Man (who looks suspiciously like the musician Prince, purple clothes and all). Dr. Facilier transforms the homely handler into a replica of the prince and becomes the handler's handler so that now Dr. Facilier can get control of Charlotte's money after the wedding via the faux prince (this is big pimpin' à la Jay Z— "take 'em out the out the 'hood, keep 'em looking good" …sing along if you know it). Dr. Facilier turns the real prince into a frog and the frog then solicits help from Tiana, the shadow princess who gets in the way accidentally and ends up a princess by as twisted a route as ever could be imagined, including spending most of the film in the form of a frog (and you thought the part I described was convoluted). Tiana's initial interest in Naveen is about getting the money for her restaurant—truly, ain't nothing going on for Tiana but the rent at the beginning of their relationship. Naveen agrees that in exchange for Tiana's help he will give Tiana the money she needs. Not having any money of his own, Naveen plans to get the money from Charlotte after he marries. (Hey kids, can you spell "hustler"?) Why couldn't Tiana go straight to Big Daddy or Charlotte, her lifelong friends, for the money? Even my seven year old asked that question.

I offer a course called "Law in Literature and Film" where, in one of the units, I discuss how fairy tales and folk tales function as rule regimes in at least two respects—first, they inculcate social norms and next, though they offer magical, fantastical solutions to problems, these solutions in fact operate via clearly established rules, norms and hierarchies. I suppose that the Princess and the Frog is perhaps partly explained by this—from a race and gender perspective much of the film promotes business as usual stereotypes.