This Friday, Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law will host a day-long symposium honoring the work of Patricia Williams, the school’s James L. Dohr Professor of Law. Each year the symposium honors a senior scholar who has made outstanding contributions to the field of gender and sexuality law, and Williams now joins past honorees Martha Nussbaum, Judith Butler, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Upon granting her one of its fellowships (the so-called “genius grant”) in 2000, the MacArthur Foundation recognized Williams for having created “a new form of legal writing and scholarship that integrates personal narrative, critical and literary theory, traditional legal doctrine, and empirical and sociological research.”
We’ve twice published books by Williams, including her first, 1991’s The Alchemy of Race and Rights. From its very first lines, Alchemy announced itself as a deeply personal work, braver and far more vulnerable than most anything else on a university press’s law list:
Since subject position is everything in my analysis of the law, you deserve to know that it’s a bad morning. I am very depressed. It always takes a while to sort out what’s wrong, but it usually starts with some kind of perfectly irrational thought such as: I hate being a lawyer.
That very incongruence—the disconnect between Williams’ writing and the impersonal analysis that would generally be expected from the work of a law professor—reflects the ideas of the book itself, run through with defiance of society’s need to limit by categorization.
In the book’s opening essay Williams recalls being pressed by her sister to explain what the then-in-progress Alchemy would be about. Her reply:
I am interested in the way in which legal language flattens and confines in absolutes the complexity of meaning inherent in any given problem; I am trying to challenge the usual limits of commercial discourse by using an intentionally double-voiced and relational, rather than a traditionally legal black-letter, vocabulary. For example, I am a commercial lawyer as well as a teacher of contract and property law. I am also black and female, a status that one of my former employers described as being “at oxymoronic odds” with that of the commercial lawyer. While I certainly took issue with that particular characterization, it is true that my attempts to write in my own voice have placed me in the center of a snarl of social tensions and crossed boundaries. On the one hand, my writing has been staked out as the exclusive interdisciplinary property of constitutional law, contract, African-American history, feminist jurisprudence, political science, and rhetoric. At the same time, my work has been described as a “sophisticated frontal assault” on laissez-faire’s most sacred sanctums, as “new-age performance art,” and as “anecdotal individualism.” In other words, to speak as black female, and commercial lawyer has rendered me simultaneously universal, trendy, and marginal. I think, moreover, that there is a paradigm at work, in the persistent perceptions of me as inherent contradiction: a paradigm of larger social perceptions that divide public from private, black from white, dispossessed from legitimate. This realization, while extremely personal, inevitably informs my writing on a professional level.
Her willingness to confront rather than conform to that “snarl of social tensions and crossed boundaries” gave the book a deep resonance while also establishing an interdisciplinary approach that became a model for generations of scholars. Alondra Nelson, of Columbia’s Department of Sociology and Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and a moderator of one of the symposium’s panels, recalled for us the book’s influence on her as an undergraduate: “As an aspiring academic, I was captivated by this book that featured its fearless black feminist author on the cover; she was a mentor from afar. I was forever transformed by the book’s equal measures of poetry and prose, erudition and plain-spokenness, wit and candidness.”
Alchemy includes “On Being the Object of Property,” Williams’ most noted piece, a work still equal parts moving and challenging after all these years. It begins with Williams sharing the earliest known history of her mother’s family, the story of her great-great-grandmother who was purchased as an eleven-year-old by a white lawyer named Austin Miller who immediately impregnated her. “While I don’t remember what I was told about Austin Miller before I decided to go to law school,” she writes, “I do remember that just before my first day of class my mother said, in a voice full of secretive reassurance, ‘The Millers were lawyers, so you have it in your blood.’ ”
Williams walks through the layered complexity of that assurance—the defiance, the reclaiming of a disinheritance, her mother’s implicit devaluing of herself as role model—and recalls having taken “this secret of my blood into the Harvard milieu with both the pride and the shame with which my mother passed it along to me.”
Reclaiming that from which one has been disinherited is a good thing. Self-possession in the full sense of that expression is the companion to self-knowledge. Yet claiming for myself a heritage the weft of whose genesis is my own disinheritance is a profoundly troubling paradox.
As a legal scholar and critical race theorist Williams examines how the law itself reflects and creates such painful paradoxes. Throughout her career, which includes many years as a columnist for The Nation, Williams has challenged legal and social constructs that are often taken for granted. Fittingly, Alchemy ends with “A Word on Categories,” in which Williams notes that her editor here at HUP was “waging something of a struggle” with the Library of Congress about how the book was to be categorized for cataloging purposes. “The librarians think ‘Afro-Americans—Civil Rights’ and ‘Law Teachers’ would be nice. I told my editor to hold out for ‘Autobiography,’ ‘Fiction,’ ‘Gender Studies,’ and ‘Medieval Medicine.’
Our congratulations to Patricia Williams on what promises to be a great day at Columbia. Check back at the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law’s website for video soon.