Law in Contemporary Society
-- UchennaIbekwe - 24 May 2009

What Are You Fighting For?

This past Saturday, I attended the 16th Annual Ruth Whitehead Whaley Luncheon that was hosted by the Association of Black Women Attorneys. Letitia James, current New York City Council Member, gave the keynote address and she was absolutely phenomenal. She spoke about a variety of issues, but I was most affected by two things in her speech. The first, relating to the experiences of some young African-American women in Brooklyn; and the second, regarding a challenge that she presented us with, “What are you fighting for.”

This resonated with me, because the experiences of the girls and the challenge were issues I thought about earlier that week. As I was finishing exams and realizing that I would soon be done with my first year of law school, I became conscious of the fact that I would now have the opportunity to take the courses I wanted, participate in seminars of interest to me, and really have the opportunity to shape an education that is most meaningful and helpful to my future. But then, I thought, what would that be? I became frustrated, because as I recalled conversations with my sister and some friends earlier last week, it seemed as though one of my reasons for coming to law school—one of the things that I was fighting for, was far too complex to resolve and may actually be a futile effort.

The Examples

During her speech, Ms. James told us about “modern day slaves.” She said some African-American girls in Brooklyn have become sex slaves. These girls are selling their bodies for sex, not because they want to, but because they believe there are no other options to earn an income and become successful. I found this disappointing, because as this was being said there were at least seventy highly accomplished African-American women in the room. They were attorneys, judges, and government officials—African-American women who had succeeded in their professions and earned a comfortable living using their intelligence and not their bodies. So to hear this was occurring in Brooklyn was truly heartbreaking, yet, unfortunately, not surprising.

Just a couple of days prior to the luncheon, I had spoken to a good friend of mine who teaches public health to communities of color in the Los Angeles area. She recently gave a presentation on diabetes to a ninth grade health class and was complaining about the students. She told me, of all of the presentations she has given, this was by far the most difficult, because of the way the students behaved—in particular the young African-American women. While in class the girls referred to one another as “Bs” and asked inappropriate questions about sex and STIs (mind you this was a presentation on diabetes), as if to display hyper-sexuality in order to appeal to the boys. In addition, the girls were intentionally being rude and ignoring her. One student went as far as to label my friend, “not hood.” Implying that she could not relate to the youth or their lifestyle because she spoke differently and was a graduate of Stanford University. However, the reality is my friend grew up in the same community and attended similar schools; nonetheless they fought her and argued that her part of the community was “not really hood.” Again, this was not surprising.

The Point

As a former mentor to African-American girls in the Los Angeles and Bay Area, I often heard stories like those mentioned above. For me, these experiences have shed light into a problem that has persisted in the African-American community for years. Despite the fact that numerous African-American women have attained success (i.e. Michelle Obama, Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey, etc.) and provide excellent role models for today’s youth, many young African-American women continue to emulate the negative images of African-American women portrayed in the media. And even in instances like the one where my friend attempted to share an issue that is threatening to African-American women, they fought her. The girls essentially refused to accept a positive role model of an African-American woman as legitimate and something that was possible for them. It may be because these positive role models tend to be significantly older and harder for girls to relate to. Or it could be that there are more images of successful African-American women on television like Melissa Ford, Karrine Steffans and Tiffany Pollard aka New York who are “video vixens” and outrageous reality TV characters who earned their fame and fortune by exploiting their bodies. There may also be a perception that role models like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey are too far away from the everyday realities of these young girls.

Whatever the reason, this problem is so severe and so deep that it has warped what young African-American women view as beauty, success, and self-respect. But how can one change the view of an entire generation of young women? Perhaps a starting point may be a mentoring program with current college students and recent college graduates to enforce positive body image, self-esteem, and working toward goals that do not include exploiting your body. On-site psychological services at their local high schools may also prove helpful in guiding them through issues that many African-American women encounter while growing up.

So...what are you fighting for?

The challenge remains, "what are you fighting for?" And really I think this challenge serves as a reminder, rather than a self-searching answer to a question. It is a reminder that we should not lose sight of our end-goal. Whether it is quality access to water and electricity for villages in Africa, equal educational opportunities for minorities in the United States, or just wanting people to be free from a mental incarceration and realize their full potential. I believe Ms. James’ message was simply not to lose sight of this and to continue to fight tenaciously for what you believe.

  • Yes, that's the message of such speeches at such events. Surely you wouldn't present that as news? The value you got from her speech was because of that message, I am sure. She did what she was called upon to do, given all you say, did so brilliantly. But I don't think you want to present that theme as your conclusion here: it's an obvious framework, not the studied outcome of a thoughtful piece such as the one you've written above it.

  • For this is a very effective essay. You should go through and remove the infelicities in language; I didn't mark it up that way, but you should feel and hear them on rereading. Your concern, which is crucial in everybody's view from right to left, is how to undo the damage that current social organization imposes on the morale and resiliency of children who live under the weight of white supremacy. The right has a tendency not to identify this as the psychic destruction wrought by white supremacy, tending to treat it as a problem of morals rather than morale. Your point about popular culture media is also crucial. The destruction of "popular culture" and its replacement by culture that people make to uplift and celebrate and improve themselves is not only part of the struggle against white supremacy, it's part of the struggle for technological freedom in which I am engaged, and of many other social movements as well. The power implicit in the image-making machinery has been put to almost every retrograde use possible since the 20th learned enough, thanks to Freud and Bernays, to mold public opinion scientifically. White supremacy is only one of the forces that has been strengthened by it.

  • Which opens another area of discussion to which lawyers should always be sensitive: Are you sure that in fighting for what you are fighting for, time and social change might not have brought into existence potential alliances no one on your team is yet exploiting?


Webs Webs

r3 - 07 Jan 2010 - 22:52:03 - IanSullivan
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