Law in Contemporary Society

My Success Has Never Been My Own

-- By AjeeRobinson - 23 Apr 2024

At the end of my senior year, the Sociology department hosted a celebration for graduating seniors. While at the reception, one of my professors, a white woman, congratulated me and asked about my summer plans before starting law school. I excitedly shared with her that I was accepted into the SEO Law Fellowship Program and would spend my summer at a Biglaw firm in D.C. Suddenly, a look of disappointment covered her face as she asked why I hadn’t considered doing something else. I nervously began explaining myself as if I were on trial, detailing how, up until that point, I devoted all of my involvements to public interest work, including devoting most of my undergraduate extracurricular time to working on the case of a wrongfully convicted woman in Philadelphia. I then awkwardly explained my financial situation, detailing how the money earned that summer would help me move to one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.—a significant help for me and my single mom. Finally, in my last failed attempt to earn her approval, I downplayed my excitement for the opportunity. She responded with, “Well, I guess that’s okay. Just make sure you don’t stick to that.” A few days later, I told a trusted professor, a white man, about the encounter. Without hesitation, he looked at me and stated with conviction, “Ajée, you are allowed to make money.” When I returned to my room, I called my mom and completely broke down. I pretended that I didn’t know why I was so profoundly affected by my professor’s affirmation—but truthfully, I knew why.

My success has never been my own.

I’ve never had the right, privilege, or freedom to own my success, define it as I see fit, or ask myself what I want to do or how I want to show up professionally (or not). Whether public interest, private sector, or any professional endeavor, I’ve always been told what’s “acceptable” for my professional life and my hopes, dreams, and aspirations as a Black woman. I was so emotional from my professor’s reassurance that I was allowed to make money without feeling misplaced guilt because up until that moment, I never had a white person, much less a white man, allow me, as a Black woman, the possibility or even dream of a life absolved of struggle. Yet, irrespective of opinions, outside noise, and even my professor’s positive reassurance, my journey here has not been that simple.

In the spirit of reclaiming my success, I haven’t been entirely truthful with myself. Although it’s a harsh reality to acknowledge, I guess I’ve never truly considered or even cared about my own happiness. Or maybe I’ve always equated my happiness with my ability to make those I love happy. Or both.

Growing up, things weren’t always easy. Although my mom worked tirelessly to ensure I had a worthwhile childhood, I always saw the sadness in her eyes and the immense sacrifice it took for her to get me into spaces of access and opportunity. Yet, the one thing that always made her happy was seeing me do well in school. So, from a young age, I equated happiness with academic and professional success, and not only did this work for my mom—it worked for my entire community. My Black mom, my Black family, and my Black Baltimore community were all lifted up by my singular successes, and at as early as six years old, I knew they all looked to me as the one who had to “make it.” So, I became fixated on doing just that—making it—and to me, it meant a prestigious job with lots of money and power. Fast forward to law school, I realized my young definition of success could easily be achieved through a career in Biglaw. As such, I went to the highest-ranked school that accepted me, promised myself that I would master this law school thing and become a Biglaw attorney, and argued with my professor for nearly the entire semester in a failed attempt to prove to myself that I was right and that my happiness would be met in such a career.

Now, I realize that reclaiming my success was never about choice, career freedom, or even creativity—instead, it has always been about safety. In a world where I already feel so unsafe because of my identity as a Black woman, this path seems like the safest and only choice that makes sense in what has already been such a difficult struggle to get here. My defensiveness about my future is less about the “system” and more about my personal frustrations with my lack of agency. No matter how much someone tells me to live my wildest legal dreams, I can’t—or maybe I’m just scared to. I’m scared that society, systems, niceties, respectability politics, racism, sexism, and anything else in between me and my wildest dreams and deepest passions have permanently dimmed the light of the little Black girl who was once so fearless. I’m scared I will fail, and my failure will only add to the generations of Black women who have poured into me, hoping that I will be the exception to their own failures. I’m scared to fall because I know I don’t have a plan B to catch me and pick up the pieces like so many of my white peers have. And finally, I’m scared to see what pursuing my passions would look like because I’ve lied to myself and mastered this game for so long that I honestly don’t know who I am without it. Yet, although I walk in my fear alone, I find comfort in knowing that I am joined by so many other Black women who, too, are trying to find their own little piece of happiness in this world, and together, I know we will.

My success has never been my own—one day, I hope I’m brave enough to reclaim it for myself.

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r3 - 04 Jun 2024 - 12:40:16 - AjeeRobinson
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