Law in Contemporary Society

The Pursuit of Happiness: Decolonizing My Mind

-- By JulieIreneNkodo - 19 Feb 2016

“The revolution will not be televised.” - Gil Scott-Heron

I listen to Common’s track The Sixth Sense’s almost every morning and it was not until a few weeks ago that I questioned the origins of the sample, and discovered Gil Scott-Heron’s poem. The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will not be force fed to me, it cannot be inauthentic, it will not be brought to me by corporate sponsors or commercial giants.

In taking the steps to decolonize my mind, and question the path that I’ve set on, willing myself away from the parade, I’ve come to a crossroads. What does it mean to pursue happiness, as a black woman, in today’s society?

“The revolution will not go better with Coke. The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.”

As the child of two immigrants from Central Africa, I was taught to believe that assimilation was the key to success. Do not get me wrong, I in no way condemn my parents for wanting me to be successful (The children of African immigrants are one of the highest achieving subgroups in America, it “works!”). Yes, we’re closing the achievement gap but conformity does not breed creativity. Without creativity there is no ownership, there is no revolution. Without revolution, there is no pursuit of happiness. The revolution does not go better with respectability politics, with climbing the corporate ladder, with securing a position wherein diversity means less than 3%..

“The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat” – Gil Scott-Heron

This semester has been a whirlwind. I've found myself lingering on this idea of being my own driver and the conductor of my legal education and career. It's easy to feel defeated and to view striving for non-conformity as an illusion. As a woman, and then adding on another layer, as a woman of color, I'm always going to be confronted with obstacles. Losing sight of the destination is incredibly easy when those obstacles appear to be the same no matter which path I take. I used to feel that taking an active role in my education, asking questions, demanding to be educated properly, figuring out a life of lawyering that is good for me outside the scope of the conventional system was burdensome. "But I would still be operating within the confines of a system that was not created for me to succeed!," I would scream. Cognitive dissonance is powerful. It was easier for me to fabricate an image in my mind wherein choosing the path laid out for me by Columbia Law was obviously the better choice given that "I wouldn't be happy anyway." I was actively reducing this dissonance, this inconsistency between my presence at this school and my beliefs about how/where I should be dedicating my time, by blaming society and the elusiveness of the pursuit of happiness. 35 pounds later, having developed anxiety attacks, as I eat kale and tomato trying to detox and undo the harm that I've done to my body both mentally and physically, I realize that I lost sight of the destination: the obstacles remain the same but the reward that is freedom is unparalleled.

“I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society”- Kendrick Lamar, The Blacker the Berry

While I’m trying to forge my own path, whole communities are being poisoned, the education system is in shambles, gun violence is the leading cause of death for black children and teens, the unemployment rate among black women demographic can’t seem to improve, among many other issues. Trying to operate within this system can be incredibly discouraging.

But reflecting back on these past 10 months, I quickly realize that I was looking through the wrong lens. "I'm irrelevant to society" but whose opinion am I putting on a pedestal? Because I am relevant to me. When you spend time in a bubble, you forget who you are and why you're there. People that are not really there for you put on the disguise of friendship and cheerfully steer you in the wrong direction. Someone tells me that the harm I'm doing my body is worth it because I'm going to make 160K and I believe them. When you're at the starting line, and you're tired and weary, everything looks the same from a distance. I tricked myself into thinking that "whether or not I'm driving the car, I'm still operating within the confines of society and the car is still built by Ford." I forgot (or ignored) the fact that I can take that car and drive it off a cliff if I want to. I can break that car apart and build my own if I choose to. I can turn off the car, take a break, and sit in the middle road to figure out my next move if I wish. I can return the car and choose to walk. The destination is absolutely not the same even if the road that leads to these destinations is littered with trials.

“The revolution will be no re-run brothers; The revolution will be live” - Gil Scott-Heron

Living in the present is inconvenient, and difficult. But it is necessary. I've come to the conclusion that the pursuit of happiness is the act of insurgency. I cannot believe I have spent an entire school year telling myself otherwise. I refuse to conform. I choose creativity. I choose to turn off the television. I'm very aware that I'm operating in a society that was built on the backs of slaves. But I've come to believe that happiness isn't necessarily achieving absolute freedom but that the act of rebellion, of choosing to live a life that is my own, is happiness.

I'm here, I've chosen to come to Columbia and I'm going to craft my own education. No Professors specializing in law in Africa? I'm going to start my own reading groups. I'm going to study abroad the entirety of 3L because I want to. I'm going to start my own projects and take an active role in seeking options outside the box, of opening myself up to alternatives.

Step one: shedding the weight, both figuratively and literally, and creating the space for ideas to blossom.

“There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock News…The revolution will not be televised” – Gil Scott-Heron


Webs Webs

r3 - 18 May 2016 - 18:39:03 - JulieIreneNkodo
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