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Excerpted from: Charles R. Lawrence III, The Fire this Time: Black Lives Matter, Abolitionist Pedagogy and the Law, 65 Journal of Legal Education 381 (November, 2015)(116 Footnotes) (Full Document)


Charles R Lawrence IIIIt seems as if I have been “teaching Ferguson” all of my adult life. In the fall of 1964 I applied to Yale Law School, and the admissions office encouraged me to supplement my written application with an interview. As I rode a Greyhound bus to New Haven I read James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, a paperback copy purchased for seventy-five cents just before boarding the bus. The five-hour bus trip passed quickly as I read Baldwin's intimate, searing, and prophetic words, written as a letter to his nephew:

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it ... but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Jack Tate, the dean of admissions at Yale, was a good old boy from Tennessee. I liked him immediately. He seemed genuinely interested in who I was and what I thought. Today I remember none of the questions he asked me except the last: “What is the last book you read for pleasure that was not an assigned reading for one of your classes?” I told him I'd just read Baldwin's new book and that, while I would not describe my experience as “pleasure,” I found the book profoundly moving. Baldwin was speaking directly to me and also speaking for me, saying many things I knew but had not found the words to say. I thought, “... and many things I knew but did not dare to say,” but was not brave enough to say those words.

Dean Tate told me that he had read an excerpt from Baldwin's book in the New Yorker and thought Baldwin's anger was overwrought and unwarranted given America's progress in race relations. He asked me what I thought of Baldwin's assertion that almost all Negroes shared his anger as well as his dark and skeptical view of America's commitment to racial justice. He said that he and his wife had recently discussed the New Yorker piece over dinner with friends who were Negroes and that they too thought Baldwin's writing an exaggerated, if eloquent, account of black alienation and anger, and an unwarranted condemnation of white America.

“Are you an angry Negro like James Baldwin?” The dean did not say these words, but that was the meaning I heard in his question.

I cannot remember my exact response. The dean's Negro friends sitting at his dinner table must have felt as I did now, trapped by this question that asks us to join the lying, in the bargained for/coerced silence that Baldwin had broken. In my head I recited the first stanza of a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem I had learned as a child:

We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.

What I said out loud was something vague about recalling that the Negro poet Paul Laurence Dunbar had written a poem about how difficult it was for Negroes to speak with candor to whites about their experiences with racism. I was hoping the dean did not know Dunbar's poem, and I was relieved that he did not press further on the subject.

As I write this essay I find a passage I underlined during my bus ride to that interview fifty years ago. Like Dunbar's poem, it speaks of masks and lies. Baldwin, the angry prophet, adds love:

A vast amount of energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man's profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man's equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

During my years as a law student at Yale I saw the prophecy of Baldwin's title fulfilled. In 1965, the summer before my first year, Watts erupted in a fiery uprising. The looting and burning went on for six days. The summer after my second year, 1967, saw 159 race riots, with major uprisings in Detroit and Newark. I dropped out of law school for a year to work as an organizer in Philadelphia. In the spring of 1968, just before I returned to Yale for my last year of law school, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and major riots broke out in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City, Detroit, and Chicago.

I found law school and the law full of masks, fear, lying, and mirrors, and experienced little of Baldwin's unmasking love. It seemed nearly impossible to learn, much less accept, rules about arms-length bargains, reasonable men, and rationally based laws when my brothers and sisters were burning down their broken neighborhoods. The dissonant juxtaposition of black rage and the law's claims to mutually beneficial rationality and justice upset me and often made me feel that I was going crazy. But my alienation from law school and the law, and the truths of Baldwin's words also led, pushed, dragged, and compelled me to a lifelong struggle to “teach/learn Ferguson.”

In a 2008 article that revisited my first work on unconscious racism, I sought to articulate my vocational aspirations and practice--what I refer to here as “Teaching Ferguson”:

This essay seeks to understand and articulate the injury that racism or white supremacy and its reiteration in the law does to African Americans, to other people of color, and ultimately to us all. I have tried to make this work my vocation. As teacher, activist, and scholar I have aspired to the tradition of radical teaching that historian Vincent Harding has named “The Word.” “The Word” articulates and validates our common experience. It seeks the reasons for oppression. It is the practice of struggle against dehumanization.

This tradition has inspired my work since law school, and it guides my effort in this essay. I hear the editors' call for this symposium to ask us to reflect on the events in Ferguson, Missouri, within the context of the legal, cultural, and historical texts and discourses that surround them. The symposium title suggests that our reflections should focus on pedagogy, from our classrooms and our scholarship--on the lessons that we might teach and learn from these events. The events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland, Baltimore, Charleston, and more locations of America's persistent human slaughter than I can name or bear to think about, present a number of questions and problems that have been central to my teaching and scholarship. My teaching and writing on unconscious racism, hate speech, school segregation, affirmative action, racial construction, and performance have explored how the law employs deeply rooted racist ideologies and narratives to justify human oppression and structural inequality, and how we internalize, repress, and deny those narratives so that we can deny our participation in human carnage and our responsibility for redressing injury. The Ferguson events are fodder for all of the lessons I have tried to teach and learn.

Each day brings new news of police and vigilante violence against people of color. Mari Matsuda, my partner/colleague/co-author in life, struggle, and love, reads the reports to me from her Twitter feed each morning before we see the morning headlines, and many of these brutalities do not even make it to the front page of The New York Times.

As we hear each report of another killing, we feel sad, vulnerable, angry, and frightened for our children. But the response of our young people also brings hope and even joy. Some 50,000 people are marching in the streets of New York, 25,000 in Washington D.C., and thousands more in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit. A St. Louis grand jury has failed to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York the policeman who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold will not stand trial. Students across the nation have moved their protests to the streets. Joining fast-food workers, civil rights organizations, religious groups, celebrity recording artists, and athletes, they march chanting, “Hands up, don't shoot” and “Black lives matter.” They lie down to stage die-ins, blocking traffic and disrupting business as usual at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, Howard and campuses across the nation as their compatriots shut down Fifth Avenue in New York, the freeway in Oakland, and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The banners, signs, and T-shirts reading “I can't breathe,” Eric Garner's dying words, shout their hurt, rage, sorrow, deep sense of loss, and shared injury.

I write this essay for the young activists who have taken up the struggle, who have responded to Ferguson with a call for justice, who are using Ferguson to teach and to learn, as a forum for understanding the reasons for oppression and a location for the vocation of struggle against dehumanization. The young people at the vanguard of today's freedom struggle know, as did Baldwin, that we can no longer ignore black anger. Our masks and lies will not suffice to heal our wounds. This fledgling young people's justice movement has taken the name Black Lives Matter. The name itself shouts the failure of American laws that claim to do racial justice.

I do not intend to reiterate the law's failures here or to claim that our civil rights laws have achieved nothing. Rather, I will look to our past for lessons from people's movements in the struggle for racial justice. Our civil rights laws advance racial justice only when these movements successfully contest the morality of racist structures, and challenge the legal and political narratives that justify those structures. The failure of our civil rights laws reflects law's central role in the maintenance and justification of racism. Laws never create racial justice. Rather, in both their achievements and their failures, laws reflect the results of political struggle. Today's freedom fighters will learn from those who fought for justice before them. What were our aspirations, our vision, and goals? Why were those aspirations not achieved, and what role has law played in denying racial justice?

Within these brief narratives from our nation's history you will hear three lessons that are grounded in the work of American critical race theorists, who have sought to understand how a regime of white supremacy and the subordination of people of color is maintained in America and, in particular, to examine how racial power is exercised through the violence and ideology of law.

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At a deeper level, Black Lives Matter articulates the everyday violence visited on black communities by the savage inequalities of segregated schools, by unemployment, and an ever-increasing wealth gap, by our disproportionate numbers in prisons and our declining numbers in universities and the professions. Most black children will not die at the hands of the police, but black and brown children who attend segregated schools are “more likely to be poor, more likely to go to jail, less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, or to finish if they go. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults. Their children are more likely to attend segregated schools, repeating the cycle.”

So the chief lesson from the past for the young people who now carry the abolitionist banner is to know that they must be the agents of transformation. They must expose the lies in the law's narrative and speak directly to the people--talking back, resisting power, telling the rest of us that we have always been the authors of our own freedom. They must know that Black Lives Matter is about saving all of our lives, about reconstituting our nation, by creating a revolution against law and culture that value property over humanity.

Fifty years ago James Baldwin insisted that we “dare everything” and “demand the impossible.” He called on us to “take off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” He proclaimed, “The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks--the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.” This is the lesson of Black Lives Matter. Our children are “Teaching Ferguson” again. Listen well.

Charles R. Lawrence III is a Professor of Law at the William S. Richardson School of Law and the University of Hawaii, Mnoa Centennial Professor; B.A., Haverford College, 1965; J.D., Yale Law School, 1969