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My Road to Blackness

The following passage is an excerpt from a speech delivered by Patrick Mason Ragen, the 2012-2013 President of the Harvard Black Law Students Association (“HBLSA”) at this year’s 30th Annual HBLSA Spring Conference. While not a direct response to Montoya’s article, the speech resonates with several of its underlying themes, including the experience of being the “other,” and the performance of one’s racial identity at the Law School.

Around a year ago, I learned that I had won the election to become BLSA President. As most of you know, I was running against the incredible Julian Hill, a 1L at the time. He has been the best External Vice President that HBLSA could ever hope for, and more importantly, he’s become a true friend and brother.

After I won, I felt happy, renewed, invigorated, ready to serve BLSA. But to be honest, there was still a nugget of insecurity within me, a part of me that really thought – “Damn. A real black guy didn’t win.” A year later, I now can say for sure . . . yes he did.

But it wasn’t without a lot of growth and struggle. Growing up, lacking the melanin to display the race of my mother and beloved grandmother to the world, I had to incorporate an aspect of performance to express my blackness. Unfortunately, with little guidance from the two to four black kids in my school, who were similarly confused, all I could discover was that being black somehow equals being “less than,” while whiteness equals “greater than.” As one black student in my class would remind me, black people are the ones who don’t call a towel a towel, we call it a “rag”; we don’t use cutlery because we pick up our chicken when we eat it; we are more prone to commit crimes, more likely to be angry, and loud. I was mis-educated to believe that to really be black meant to purposefully act as a lesser form of Western human.

Feeling that blacks were to be “less than” made me resentful, a resentment amplified by white society’s unspoken expectations that, as a white-skinned person, I was entitled to be taking full advantage of what was “greater than.” But I sure didn’t feel “greater than.” I hated my skin color for its arrogance, and as a child, I fantasized about magically turning the white people into the “less thans,” all by myself. The world was still broken, and my young mind could not comprehend it.

It was by entering environments in which I could befriend a diverse array of talented, passionate, brilliant black people that my paradigms of blackness began to shift away from lamenting inferiority, towards emphasizing greatness. One of the first places that helped me do this was the Ujamaa dorm at Stanford University –a dorm in which 50% of the residents were black, where the “minority” became the majority, a place for community, empowerment, and unparalleled intellectual discourse.

Ujamaa took me part way down the road towards racial rejuvenation, but to my surprise, it took Harvard Law School of all places to make my journey complete.

As a 1L, I was not in the best place spiritually and emotionally. But I did what I could for BLSA, because I knew how important the black community had been to me in undergrad. Then, to my surprise, our last 2 presidents, Shaylyn and Reese, asked for me to serve as BLSA Secretary for my 2L year. To feel needed by them, by BLSA, gave me just a little extra spark of life.

Ironically, by increasing my leadership role in this black organization, I finally began to see life as less black and white. My white fingers were typing a very black newsletter, and forcing myself to act as “less than” was nowhere to be found in my BLSA Secretary job description.

By March of last year, I found myself, again at Reese’s suggestion, running for HBLSA President. The day after I won, I remember walking in front of the library, and seeing one of our BLSA members, a girl who was not one to mince words. She looked at me and said, “You look different! In a good way.”

I was a bit confused. I hadn’t gotten a new fade. I hadn’t gotten a tan, although I was planning on it. I wasn’t even wearing new kicks.

And then it hit me – I was standing up straight. For the first time I could recall, my shoulders were facing the sky instead of the ground. My eyes focused on the road ahead of me instead of on my shoelaces. What this girl noticed was a man walking on earth who, for the first time, felt like he belonged there. Not just because I was President. But because I was Black and no one could tell me I wasn’t. And I didn’t get to be “Black” by being “less than” – no, I got there by doing the absolute best that I could!

The tragic irony of this is not lost on me – the blackness that now makes me stand up straight is the same blackness that has been misappropriated to weigh down the shoulders of African-Americans for centuries. For so long, we as black people have tended to empower everyone else’s vision of what ourselves should be. But we can dream so much higher on our own.

That’s what we have tried to do in BLSA this year. This year, we in Harvard BLSA have asked: Why meet just one Supreme Court Justice when we can meet two? Why just summer in Martha’s Vineyard, when we can also winter in Sunday River, Maine? Why eat pizza when we can have lobster mac & cheese? Why go to the club dry when we can buy a bottle? And why have a conference where black people worry amongst themselves about community problems, when we can have a conference that shows the entire HLS student body that we are the best organization on campus in spite of these problems?? How’s that for your racial entitlement!

For the officers and myself, HBLSA’s goal this year has been to encourage a positive standard of blackness, so that when we think about our own blackness, we ALL stand up straight, and tall, and strong, the crowns of our heads pointed towards the heavens.

The power you will feel from doing so is second to none. And the first few months I was BLSA president, I craved empowerment so much that I insisted on signing every email “BLSA Power,” a change from the normal closing, “BLSA Love.” BLSA Love was too weak, anyway, I thought.

But as the months progressed, and BLSA members truly became my family members, it became clear that love, the greatest power of them all, was the only word that could describe the energy I felt from all of you. When Anisha would organize exam prayer circles; when 1Ls Victoria and Jaimie would take the lead in organizing community service events; when 4-year-old Lynette would make an outburst during a meeting and everyone would laugh; when 25-year-old Mondaire would make an outburst during a meeting and everyone would laugh; when Julian would organize “Brotha’s Lunches” on Fridays in the Hark. All that wasn’t just power – that was love.

I recently heard a quote from a man named Panache Desai, who says, “we are put in exactly the place we need to be, to love the people that we are around.” Indeed, I do believe that in some way, all our work here—our classes, our student groups, even this conference – has merely been a front, for all of us to be around each other, and to love one another. Now, I am proud to say to the members of the Harvard Black Law Students Association, that, in the words of the great Donny Hathaway – I love you more than you’ll ever know.

And with BLSA love, I thank you all.

 

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  1. Still Un/Masking the Self: Legal Education and the Experience of the Other | Harvard Journal of Law and Gender - March 15, 2013

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