Sunday, April 10, 2022

Be Mindful of the Falling Glass and Other Advice to My Daughter

On this beautiful weekend of her birthday and after the historic Supreme Court confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson, I am writing an open letter to my daughter, Zuri Elena. (I was still writing on Saturday morning, and though I had hoped to include a picture of her at the mural unveiling...well, I suspect she won't read this until years from now, so we're good :)

Dear Z:

There are so many thoughts going through my head, and in spite of all these fancy planning tools I have been accumulating, I am still all over the place. These past couple of weeks have been overwhelming, and you, my dear, have been a handful! One day when you read this, you will probably wonder what I meant, but suffice it to say, you are what you have always been from the day you were born: relentless, strong-willed, sweet, fiery, imaginative, and the most amazing reminder that God will answer prayers. 

This is the eve of your 7th birthday so allow me to repeat--the weeks leading up to this moment have been hectic. Last year, I was planning a Zoom dance party from an unwieldy guest list; this year we opted to settle for a smaller classroom party. But your if you are still a little salty with me about my decision to cancel that celebration, just know that it was harder for me to stand firm (and I still caved a little, so you'll be fine). Part of making these difficult choices is about imparting life lessons and preparing you for a world that won't always cater to you, especially not as a young Black woman.

It might seem ironic that I would make that statement, on this historic day after...but trust, it wasn't an easy road. Back in February, I wrote a looonnng piece about the challenges of being a Black woman in the legal profession, and while I can hope that this moment won't be marred in all of the typical ways, I know better. I remember how elated I was the day after Barack Obama was elected. I also remember the worst days of his Presidency and how the opposition did everything to ensure that he would ever be regarded as competent, or even legitimate. I remember what it was like to wake up in the middle of the night to the somber news that Donald Trump had been elected. And while I am thankful that we shielded you from the true horror of that experience, that is the backdrop of my cautious optimism. The pendulum will swing...

And when it does, I will have to remind you that what led to the backlash (always modest, superficial progress) was once thought to be improbable, so we will journey on.

On this birthday eve, I look at this picture I took of you in front of the Supreme Court a couple of weeks ago. Judge Jackson was down the street testifying in a Senate Committee hearing room and I got the crazy idea to take you over to the steps of the building. I told you where we were going, but you're six and it was a beautiful early Spring day. You were more interested in striking the right pose than in the cherry blossoms that were in peak bloom. We got several great pictures, unlike that overcast Fall day when we last visited the Court.

The contrast between those two days--one bright and hopeful, the other gloomy and foreboding, is definitely a metaphor for our times. In September 2020 I took you to the steps of the Court to pay respect to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. We stood in a long line. We were still in the thick of the pandemic, so everyone was masked up (because a vaccine hadn't been released or approved). You were attending virtual school. The country was weeks away from the November election. I had begun researching plans to volunteer out of state as an election monitor. The DESPOTUS was teasing out his options for a successor Justice in the media. And because I need to you to understand this, none of the candidates that had been talked about in the press were women of color.

So don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise--at that bleak point in 2020, it was highly doubtful that a Black woman would have been considered for that Court vacancy. Every high-profile appointment in that Administration was emblematic for its overt lack of inclusivity and diversity. We were only just learning about the abysmal hiring rates for non-white clerks. Nobody even remembered that obscure Biden campaign promise, given that we were still in the heat of debating whether a Black woman could be elected to serve as the Vice President. Nothing was assured, except that the levers of power were being manipulated to remind us of how powerless and vulnerable we the people can be. The other side had already made it clear that if they could deny a duly elected Black President the right to exercise his constitutional power nine months before Election Day, surely they would enable a dubiously elected tyrant to install another Justice with all deliberate speed in six weeks. 

And they would do so with the added bonus of elevating a woman who could inspire their daughters, to replace the outspoken woman whom they felt had encouraged too much of the wrong kind of ambition. One of the statements made about Amy Coney Barrett, the jurist who was ultimately chosen was that she would be a positive role model. That description gnawed at me for some reason, not because it isn't true (and not because it is true, she has seven kids and isn't on a TLC reality show). Amys always are touted as role models for young girls. Ketanjis and Kamalas typically are not. Nor were Michelles or Sonias, which is why this moment is so important.

When women like Ketanji and Kamala and Michelle and Sonia embrace or acknowledge their historical significance, they are bombarded and diminished by those who would rather bask in the non-threatening light emitted from an Amy. That won't make sense to you yet, but I need to point this out because one day, some kid is going to prefer an Amy over you. And you are going to come home in tears and ask me to let you alter your appearance in some way to help you fit in with the Amys, and I am going to say no. Then you are going to insist, and knowing you the way I do, you will be relentless, yet I will be emphatic.

Because YOU are Zuri. And the world is so much better and brighter and interesting because of you.

There is nothing inferior or unattractive or too much about being a Black girl. And while your non-Black girlfriends great, they are not superior or more beautiful or practically perfect in every way. I mean that, so when you make us late for school because you are posing in the mirror, I just want to be confident that it isn't because you wish you could look like or become someone else.

Therefore, it is necessary for me to aim a few pointed jabs at Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). You might be wondering, why him when there were 46 others who voted against this nomination, including five of the seven women on the GOP side of the aisle. There is a lot I could say about them too, but we need to address Mr. Scott so that you can better understand why those five aren't really worth the effort. To start, instead of name-calling, I will simply express my profound disappointment in his choice of an Amy over Ketanji. I get the ideological differences, but somehow his Colleague Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) didn't feel compelled to choose one woman over the other. Romney didn't conclude that there was no place for Ketanji because she had chosen a career path that didn't treat the law as a tool for amassing more power. Amazing how a man who was once ridiculed for referring to his binders full of women actually flipped through the pages and came across someone who was not an Amy and liked what he saw.

I wish Mr. Scott had thought more about you and all of the little girls who flip through magazines or scroll through social media and see pages and pages of Amys who are touted as role models. For years people resisted the notion that representation mattered, because any woman could be an inspiration they claimed. While that is true, the problem has been that "any" woman was typically one specific kind of FOX News spokesmodel Barbie. A homogenous every woman who had so-called universal appeal from that blue blooded sorority of genteel ladies who came from the right families. 

This is all kind of above your head at this age, but there are these unspoken rules of pedigree that serve as electrical fences around exclusive spaces. Mr. Scott is himself a rarity in one of those elite enclaves, along with a handful of others. Judge Jackson has now joined another august body with similar restricted access. Part of his Constitutional job was to provide advice and consent for Judge Jackson to be confirmed, and he declined to give his consent. Then he made quite the show of opposing her, including a thumbs down gesture for the cameras as a demonstration. Prior to that lovely Kodak moment, he had issued a statement that his opposition to her nomination had to do with his fundamental disagreements with her judicial methodology/philosophy. Interesting talking points regurgitated by someone without a law degree, to describe guaranteeing criminal defendants their Constitutional rights by providing counsel and representation as judicial activism. 

It is one thing for guys like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) to attack a nominee for taking the side of the accused, because they were former prosecutors. And they are shameless grandstanders who are either running for President or begging to be picked by the former DESPOTUS as his privy council should he succeed in his next coup attempt. However, as the sole Black man serving in the highest elected office in the opposition party, the first one to represent the Old Secessionist South in modern time, someone who was appointed before he was elected, a man who claims to think for himself, for him to proudly vote against this nomination...well, at least he didn't vote from the closet like his mentor Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

But he voted against her because he could, so he did. And the warning I am sending here is for you to be wary of men like Tim Scott, who relish the power they've been given more than their moral obligation to exercise that power responsibly. Why did he choose to act like a bouncer at the exclusive club instead of a VIP in the roped off section like Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) did? All I know is that he waived Amy right on in but stood in the doorway with a downturned thumb to block Ketanji. 

I almost forgot that I am writing this to my soon-to-be-seven-year-old daughter...who is currently having a tantrum in the bathroom, so let's move this along with this lesson: If someone is in a position to hold a door open for you, but they opt to let it close in your face, that person is trash. That's why we don't even need to discuss those other Senate women because they saw how Judge Jackson was mistreated and disrespected, and they chose to grab their purses and cross the street.

So let's go back to why I started this letter before I lose my momentum. Zuri, I want you to believe that ALL dreams are possible. I don't know if Ketanji Brown Jackson dreamt of becoming a Supreme Court Justice, but I can tell you how I used to dream about arguing cases in that marble building. I got to see Justices Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O'Connor seated behind that long bench when I was in high school, and later I got to lobby for the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsberg when I was in college (I dropped off packets to each Senator in support of her nomination). I drafted an op-ed on the confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito, and I think Justice Sonia Sotomayor is beyond awesome (here is a retro post* about her). It isn't too late, but if I never get to argue a case there, this confirmation process has reminded me of why I wanted to become a lawyer in the first place. 

Not to be rich or famous. Not to lament not being invited to the GOP Senate Ladies Auxiliary Tea at the Margaret Mitchell House with the Amys. Not to have my life and motivations micro-analyzed by a bunch of twits on social media. Not to provide b-roll for some aspiring candidate's political ads. And certainly not to be deterred by some self-appointed gate-keeper on a misguided power trip. I became a lawyer to help people and to advocate for change.

I'm surprised that no one has referenced the very short-lived show, The Court (2002), that was intended as a West Wing-ish take on the Supreme Court. This is where my idiot savant abilities in recalling obscure pop culture is useful--the late great Diahann Carroll portrayed the other female jurist, senior to Sally Field, newly confirmed. Who knows how that plotline would have developed, but I recall thinking that might have been one of the many reasons why that show was quickly canceled, because of the improbability of a Black woman on the Court. But that which seems impossible is, until it isn't.

Which brings us back to today. 

Judge Jackson remarked on the incredible journey that brought her to this moment, and a lot of folks got emotional because these firsts are both personal and collective victories. I imagine that Constance Baker Motley felt the same when she was appointed to the federal bench. These two women share a birthday, and I hope, the same determination to dismantle the obstacles that racism and sexism still pose. No matter what, my daughter, do not be deterred.

I never aspired to be a Supreme Court Justice nor have I ever considered the path cleared by others as one that I needed to follow. I don't see myself breaking any glass ceilings, and that is just fine with me. I hope that by the time you read this, there won't be that much glass left above you, only that which you sweep away on the ground.

* I hereby renounce that I denounced Justice Sotomayor's statement. She had every right to be proud and so do you, as a fellow wise Latina woman. And don't you ever forget that!

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