Law in Contemporary Society

The Truth About Role Models

On the same day that I finished my first semester of law school, my sister was accepted into the medical school of her dreams. After congratulating her, my dad called me. An easy-going but austere man, his tone was much softer than usual. He was sniffling and his voice was shaky. “I feel relieved,” he said. “My children have exceeded my wildest dreams. I’m so proud of you all.”

“You come from a good crop,” he would tell his three young children, taking the occasional break from his favorite flight simulator, which occupied a substantial amount of his free time. The few pictures that he had from his youth in Barbados were of his father and grandfather. Tall, handsome, dark-skinned men who wore suits every day and held their heads high—a far cry from the not-so-distant ancestors who spent their lives as slaves in the island’s sugar fields. Although the country was crippled by generations of colonialism, the British had finally left and there was more promise than ever. I knew that all nine of his grandfather’s descendants had professional jobs, including my dad’s father, who was the Auditor General of the Barbados government. My dad had also accomplished quite a bit, moving to New York City in 1969 and eventually becoming a respected American physician.

This was basically all that I knew about my dad’s family history and I was very proud of my distinguished black genes. My brown skin (which leaves many unaware that my mother is white) gave me confidence, and I knew that it wouldn’t stop me from accomplishing anything because it had never stopped any of the free men before me. However, when I chose to pursue a dream and attend my top choice law school, my dad told me the whole story.

It began with one brief email, but evolved into over 20 pages of correspondence, each sharing a greater depth than the last. I learned about how my grandfather quit his job with the Barbados government in 1950 and went to New York City with my grandmother and infant father in search of greater opportunities. After 18 months of looking for work, my grandfather, a scholar in Latin and Greek, was forced to return with his family to Barbados because he could only find jobs as a janitor or elevator operator. The humiliation put so much strain on my grandparents’ marriage that my grandmother moved in with relatives in New York, permanently leaving my dad and grandfather in Barbados.

I learned about how much this story scared my dad, and how he was hesitant to leave the poor, 14 by 25 mile island where he had the comfort of being a relatively privileged member of the majority. I learned about how he spent his days as a young boy reading about far-off places in Time Magazine, wishing that he would one day be able to fly around the world in a jet and see them. I learned about how, in the wake of his father’s plight, my dad was told that he was crazy for wanting to go to the US as opposed to being a doctor in Barbados. And finally, I learned about how my dad’s first experiences as a black man in America almost shattered his dreams of starting a life here. It wasn’t until he earned a spot at Cornell’s medical school that his confidence started to bounce back.

He chose not to tell his children about this part of his life because he feared that it would stop us from seizing the opportunities that this country has to offer. He found upon moving to the US that a powerful way in which oppression operates is through the eyes of the oppressed, and he did what he could to minimize our inevitable exposure. He didn’t want us to feel like we had to lower the bar of accomplishment because we are black and miss out on all of the opportunities that he wished he had as a child in the Caribbean. He saw my law school admission as relative success and determined that I hadn’t so deeply internalized feelings of racial inferiority that I was derailed from pursuing my aspirations. For that reason, he was ready to tell me those stories.

The truth about role models is that their stories are often incomplete. Rarely is the path to fulfillment free of struggles, pitfalls, and failure. People are celebrated for their accomplishments while any mistakes or botched endeavors are glazed over like they never happened. While I understand my dad’s hiding of the whole family history, I’m very happy that he shared it. Upon learning what my predecessors faced, my respect and appreciation for who they eventually became increased immensely. Understanding my role models not as aspirations, but instead as humans shaped by both adverse and amazing experiences, made me even more willing to blaze and embrace my own path to a fulfilling and gratifying life, which is what he wanted for me from the start.

My dad and I had dinner a few months ago at a West Indian restaurant in the East Village. While discussing my future and “all of the doors that are open,” he told me that he was excited that I was on my way to a career that will be “fulfilling, fun, and something that [I’ve] always wanted to do.” I asked him if he felt like he found the career that he always wanted, and he hesitated. “I love being a doctor, but if I were in your shoes, I’d become a pilot.”


Webs Webs

r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:48 - IanSullivan
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