Law in Contemporary Society
-- By BrandonNesfield - 19 Feb 2016


The clinic was a plain building, a patchwork of cinderblock and cement. It stood out amongst its neighbors, crude assortments of cardboard and corrugated iron that stretched to the horizon in the township of Khayelitsha, South Africa. The first patient was a plump, swarthy woman who muttered nervously to herself in Xhosa as she entered the room; her toddler was nestled in the folds of a waist-drawn, pink blanket. The medical students removed the blanket, revealing reddish yellow burns that spanned the child’s back. He bawled as the doctor examined his gnarled skin, its waxy texture set ablaze under the light. The students shouted competing diagnoses as the child’s mother let out agonizing cries of explanation. “Stove” was the only discernible word, but it was easy to draw the inference.

These were the sort of experiences that propelled me toward law school. A part of me always knew I would pursue a legal career. But that knowledge was influenced by years of recommendations from others who, after hearing a polished quip or an impassioned argument, would proclaim my future success as a lawyer. After working in South Africa, I was convinced a J.D. would empower me to change the world. When the summer ended, I returned to the familiarity and comfort of life at Duke. The more time passed, the more my interest in the public good withered away. Surrounded by friends heading excitedly to jobs in the financial sector, I found myself fascinated by an equally lucrative, glossy career track. The image of the wretched child was replaced by visions of life as a corporate attorney, wheeling and dealing from a city high-rise. Talk of “burning the midnight oil” in the “trenches” with future colleagues aroused an intoxicating sense of machismo within me, silencing the inner voice that had once motivated me.

My youth provides a few insights on my shift in perspective. My large, Caribbean family has always seen professional success as binary: you become a doctor or a lawyer. While the concept of doctors and lawyers as the exemplars of American society is largely outmoded, it persevered within my immigrant household. Uninterested in the indulgences of the suburban petite bourgeoisie, my parents used their resources to fund the modalities of an upper class upbringing. Ski trips, swim teams, and piano lessons supplemented the private schooling that would prepare me for higher achievement. I knew that black men occupied two stations in the American imagination: thug or exception. I was constantly afraid of being classified as the former, yet despised being told I was the latter. My teenage friends would exclaim with a smirk: “you’re hardly black” or “you’re like an Oreo, but it’s cool”, as if my ‘spiritual whiteness’ was a compliment. I hated the constant reminders of my difference, yet I couldn’t disentangle success and whiteness in my mind. My sense of self became racialized and marked by internal conflict. I knew I would always be black—but if success could assuage the feeling of being lesser, how could I not pursue it, even on white terms? I didn’t want the clichéd retail assistant following me around the store, I wanted her to know that I was intellectual and thoughtful and kind—that striking a conversation with me may even brighten her day. These thoughts raged on in my adolescent mind, quietly shaping who I was and who I wanted to be. Even as a college student, my aspirations to serve the the have-nots couldn’t compete with my deeper-seated desire to join the ranks of the haves.

I pursued my lily-white fantasy as a summer at Cravath, where my expectations clashed with reality. I believed that such a prestigious firm would provide me with deep satisfaction, along with excellent future career prospects and a comfy paycheck. While my summer delivered on the latter, I couldn’t have felt less satisfied. The firm was the epitome of sleek professionalism: Cravath attorneys discussed cases of clients responsible for gross human atrocities without blinking an eye; business was business and either way, the scallops at Marea weren’t going to pay for themselves. I grappled with the idea that growing up entailed abandoning childish notions of my ‘rightful place in the world’ and accepting that financial stability was the basis for a happy life. Ultimately, I couldn’t reconcile this idea with the mechanistic tasks in service of faceless clients that I completed every day. Surely life as a partner would be cozy and self-affirming, but I’d likely lose myself in the process.

There are so many things I would like to do. Most of them don’t gel with the looking-glass self I’ve served so faithfully, but I am gaining the courage to start listening to the inner voices that have stayed quiet for so long. I want to continue traveling—for me—and help people along the way where my skills can. I’d like to get back to reading, writing, and drawing: my creative instincts have been stifled by my own perception of them as weak and unfit for professional life. I’m still a law student. I’m still young. I’ve spent years pursuing a life shaped the expectations and realities of others, steered by the idea that black male success only comes in business formal. I fixate on how I am perceived, in turn dictating how I perceive myself. The process of abandoning this fixation won’t be simple. It is a part of my being, responsible a great deal of my successes. I don’t want the next generation of me’s to fight the exact same racial and social convictions I did. The very first good that I can do for this world is serving as an example of an individual who rose above the competing voices to listen to my own. But ultimately, I’m going to start listening to me, for me. I will never get satisfaction from living a life for others.

Yes, this seems to me to vindicate that plan of improvement. Of course, this ends on a note of oratory that hasn't yet become anything but words. At least you can see possible futures from here....


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r5 - 05 Jun 2016 - 17:47:21 - EbenMoglen
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