Clemency Section Letter – Rodney Reed

If you’ve followed me over the past decade (said in the least self-aggrandizing way possible), you know that the fight to abolish the death penalty is near & dear to my heart.

I began my struggle on this front at Howard. In the fall of 2011, a number of students on campus protested the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. Although he was ultimately put to death, I continued my advocacy during the rest of my college years. Of note, I contributed to & participated in a successful fight to end capital punishment in Maryland.

Eight years later, the issue remains as pressing as it’s ever been. More attention is growing to the case of Rodney Reed here in Texas. However, more attention is needed, as his execution is currently scheduled for November 20.

As such, I’m getting plugged back into the anti-capital punishment fight in earnest. I participated in a rally at UT-Austin today, and I wrote a letter to the Clemency Section of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. You can find it here.

I remain in solidarity with all who are fighting against the racist system of American capital punishment, advancing the work of prison-industrial complex abolition, and struggling for a more just future for humanity.

– Andrew Hairston

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Becoming a Lawyer Through Patchett’s Prose

For everyone who’s considered becoming a lawyer, for any reason at all. 

There are many reasons to love Ann Patchett’s 2016 novel, Commonwealth. A taut, yet expansive novel that covers the lives of a blended family over fifty years, I imagine that its themes would elicit smiles and nostalgia from people across the country. For me, the structure of this family – comprised of four parents and six children – felt familiar, in a sense.

My mother is one of thirteen children, and my father is one of five boys. Although I only have one sister, Patchett’s descriptions of the childhood adventures of Cal Cousins, Jeanette Cousins, Holly Cousins, Albie Cousins, Franny Keating, and Caroline Keating made me recall the endless days of summer with my sister and cousins in Louisiana & North Carolina. The novel expertly covers the love, loss, joys, and frustrations of half of a century, but one aspect of the story particularly stood out to me.

As a lawyer, I was drawn to the cases of three lawyers, or would-be lawyers, in the book – Franny, her stepfather Bert, and her father Fix. The wildly divergent paths of these three characters to law school made me heavily contemplate my own path from kindergarten straight through the end of law school. It made me deliberately consider the question – who gets to go to law school? Coming from another direction, these three characters made me wonder who should go to law school?

Admittedly, prior to reading Commonwealth, I’d convinced myself that I had the answers to these inquiries. I was an avid John Grisham fan as a boy, and I have several lawyers in my extended family. Becoming a lawyer seemed like a laudable, sensible career path for me. I approached it at a breakneck pace and now, at 28, I find myself settled into my career and advancing through it. Reading Commonwealth made me examine the privileges I’ve been afforded as a young attorney and think about how those opportunities did – or didn’t – play out in the lives of Bert, Franny, and Fix.

Take Bert, for example – a wealthy white man who considered being a lawyer his birthright. Coming from a family of lawyers, he graduates from the elite University of Virginia School of Law and starts his career as a deputy district attorney. After he breaks up the marriage of Fix and Beverly Keating, and moves back to Virginia, he easily entertains all six children in a home built on the foundation of his family wealth. He moves through life with every benefit of that supposed birthright in place – at every turn.

Moving from Bert to Franny provides an interesting study in contrasts. Franny ultimately attends the prestigious University of Chicago School of Law for two years prior to dropping out. Her reflection on the experience provides insight into how many aspiring lawyers feel as they proceed through law school in the twenty-first century:

“Going to law school had been a terrible error in judgment that she had made in hopes of pleasing other people, and because of that error in judgment she was in debt like some sort of Dickens character, like the kind of person who wound up on the Oprah show weeping, without a single skill to show for it…”

Even with an acknowledgement of the significant risks, Franny takes the courageous step of walking away from law school entirely – a decision I must say that I considered myself toward the middle of my second year at Louisiana State University. Leading up to this point, Franny almost exclusively took career guidance from both her father and step-father – the point of agreement between the two men being that Franny & Caroline should go to law school, “because each man had seen [it] in himself.”

With the fierce sense of independence that she developed over the course of her life, she breaks free from the thoroughly vetted expectation that is placed upon her. Her reflection on her decision to leave law school began to shift my thinking on the current structure of the American legal education system; however, the journey of her father, Fix Keating, is the part of Commonwealth that completely converted me.

Fix Keating didn’t initially win me over as a character, if for no other reason than his occupation – a police officer. As a civil rights attorney – specifically one who came of lawyer-age in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Botham Jean, and other Black victims of state-sanctioned violence – I am, at best, intensely skeptical of policing across the history of America, including the present. Even with this recognition of history, as Patchett’s narrative unfolded, a soft spot for Fix emerged. He approaches the middle of his life and decides to take on the daunting task of enrolling in an evening program at Southwestern College of Law.

Upon receiving this news from Franny, Bert’s disdain becomes readily apparent. He utters ‘Dear God’ in response to this announcement, manifesting how he feels about an unranked law school like Southwestern. He continues:

“I went to the University of Virginia. But I didn’t do it at night. I went the regular way.”

With this self-assuredness and arrogance on full display, Bert sets up his expectation of failure for Fix. Despite Fix’s diligence, it unfortunately plays out that way. Fix successfully completes law school and then sits for the California bar exam. One attempt is followed by another, which is followed by a third – eventually transforming into an unspoken return to normalcy:

“…and so Fix sat for the test the third time, and when he didn’t pass then, he stopped. No one talked about law school any more, except insofar as it applied to Caroline and Franny.”

Caroline does go on to become a successful lawyer, following in Bert’s footsteps. But the journeys of Fix and Franny were the ones that utterly transformed my thinking – even as someone who did law school “the regular way.” That Franny and Fix realized that law school and its aftermath weren’t going to play out exactly according to plan – and persevered through life anyway – brings me to a couple conclusions. One, the rigid, costly structure of full-time legal education programs can often be exclusionary and prohibitive. Moreover, the American legal education system could certainly stand to be revamped – perhaps in a two-year learning, one-year apprenticeship model previously endorsed by President Obama.

I began Commonwealth thinking that a three-year, full-time J.D. program was likely the best of a set of flawed options – primarily because that’s how my journey unfolded. I ended the book assured that Franny and Fix would’ve been phenomenal lawyers – and that Bert’s privilege was pretty much the only thing that made him an attorney. For Fix and Franny, had a more flexible, accommodating system been in place, they may very well have become Attorneys and Counselors at Law.

If nothing else, Commonwealth is a gem. It reinforced the idea that, as I proceed through my career as a lawyer, I will always strive to be aware of the privileges I’ve been afforded and keep the paths of this masterful book’s characters in mind. All of it will inform my work to make the legal system more accessible for those who should be practicing and for all who seek equal justice under the law.

– Andrew Hairston

 

 

 

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Hochi Run

For Howard China and its endless nourishment & enlightenment. 

 

Malik loved Drew Hall. Its smell. Its history. Fuck it, he didn’t need consistent air conditioning. It more than sufficed to have his boys, his room, and Nicole.

 

He met Nicole at the party on the Yard during Freshman Week, and she quickly became as much of his Drew Hall experience as the communal showers down the hall.

 

He walked up behind Nicole and caught the twerk as custom dictated. She glanced at him and almost simultaneously determined that he would be an adequate dancing partner. They continued their established rhythm for a few more songs.

 

A visit to the Drew courtyard followed the obligatory trip to McDonald’s, and Malik knew that she would be a central point of his first year at Howard. Well into the semester, they adopted a routine that worked pretty well for both of them. They grabbed dinner at Blackburn, returned to Drew, and mostly studied. Sometimes, a blunt or their physical attraction would distract them, but they generally remained fairly diligent.

 

One night, a craving for Howard China, best known as Hochi, struck Malik like a member of the Showtime Band would strike their cymbals.

 

“Are you hungry? Do you want to walk with me to Hochi?”

 

Malik posed the two questions with the expectation that she would respond affirmatively to both. He was right.

 

“A three piece does sound pretty great right now. Do you have cash on you? No, I should’ve gotten some from the ATM in Blackburn. Want to walk with me there, then on to Hochi?”

 

Nicole stood up, leaned down to kiss him, and grabbed her coat.

 

“You’ve got it babe.”

 

Malik followed her lead, and they were soon on their way. The November air was certainly brisk, but it was also tolerable. Just as they passed Burr Gymnasium, Nicole took Malik’s hands in her own. He glanced over at her while maintaining a consistent gait – she inspired so much warmth within him.

 

Only a few people existed on the path – the handful that did were mostly athletes and band members. It felt like Thanksgiving had come early.

 

Blackburn stood as resolute as ever, with just several students congregated on the low brick wall in front of it. Malik held the door for Nicole, and they made an immediate left to reach the Bank of America ATM machine. Nicole stayed slightly behind as Malik approached the glowing screen.

 

It soon swallowed his bank card, chip and all. He glared at the monitor, caught between whether he should request $20 or $40. He strained to recall his balance; whatever the exact amount was, he knew that it had to be under $100.

 

Even though he could get Hochi meals for him and Nicole for under $15, Malik decided to go for the $40. Some extra cash on his person couldn’t hurt. He pushed the corresponding button. The blinking dotted lines continued to flash for several seconds. It lasted a bit longer than it normally did, temporarily leading Malik to believe that he’d made the wrong choice and overdrawn his account.

 

Thankfully, the contraption opened its mouth and produced two crisp $20 bills. Malik’s fear dissipated and his normal level of confidence replaced it.

 

“I know you must be extra hungry by now, babe. Let’s head over there.”

 

Malik offered the declaration to Nicole, extended his left hand to her, and grabbed his phone with his right one. He retrieved the number to the restaurant from his recent calls; Hochi was at least a weekly occurrence.

 

“Hello, may I help you?”

“Yes, may I have two orders of three wings with fries, mambo sauce all over, and two large mixes.”

“Okay – ten minutes.”

“Thank you.”

 

He could complete that ritual in his sleep. There was no telling how many times he’d made that call and had that conversation.

 

They strolled casually along the same path they’d taken to get to Blackburn. Just as they passed Burr Gymnasium again and prepared to turn left on Gresham, Nicole expressed an enticing challenge.

 

“Once we finish eating, we should check and see if the gym is open and go swimming in the pool.”

 

Malik smiled and nodded. Even with the calendar being deep into late autumn, it was an idea worth exploring.

 

They quickly completed the rest of their journey – basking in the energy that the intersection of Gresham Place NW and Georgia Avenue NW perennially provided. Malik got the door for Nicole once more, and he almost instantly recognized Terrance – one of his floor mates from Drew. A young woman was standing right next to him.

 

“Hey Terrance!”

“What’s up Malik! Have you met my girl, Keana?”

“No, I don’t think I have.”

 

Malik extended his hand to meet Keana’s.

 

“Have you met my girl, Nicole?”

“Yeah, I think I have. It’s good to see you again.”

 

Malik briefly parted ways with the three of them to walk up to the counter and pay. Afterwards, the four of them started casually conversing. A few minutes passed, and an older couple entered the space. Both appeared to be in their early sixties – the woman wore golden hoop earrings, had her hair slicked back, and was primarily covered by a large brown coat. The man sported a long-sleeved t-shirt with the DC flag in the middle of it – he had a tattoo on his left forearm to match.

 

The woman immediately took a seat in one of the four available chairs; the man brusquely approached the window.

 

“Let me get two orders of three wings – one with fried rice and the other with fries.”

 

As he finished placing his order, another man entered with a cigarette in his mouth.

 

“Hey Joe. Why did you have to do me like that? I just needed a few dollars.”

“Clark, get out of here with that mess. I told you not to start with me.”

 

Malik, Nicole, Terrance, and Keana observed the escalating conflict from a small corner near the trash cans.

 

“Fuck that Joe. I’m tired of you always disrespecting me.”

 

Clark then lit the cigarette; Joe started to take the opportunity to respond. The woman used the brief window to offer her perspective.

 

“Come on now y’all. We don’t need to do this in here right now”

“You’d better listen to Ruth, Clark.”

 

Joe’s threat pushed Clark over the edge; Clark lunged forward and shoved Joe against the wall. Joe took only a few seconds to gather himself and respond with a push of his own. The four college students stood, immobilized, as the fight unfolded.

 

The tussle slightly shifted to the right, and Joe inadvertently knocked Clark into Nicole. She stumbled back, though Malik soon stabilized her. Malik experienced a sharp flash of rage while Ruth labored to get the two older men to call a truce.

 

The few employees who were there repeatedly yelled the word leave from behind the bulletproof glass. Joe and Clark calmed down considerably within a matter of seconds, but the indignation grew within Malik like the ringing of the bells atop Founders’ Library.

 

“What the fuck old man? You just hit my girlfriend!”

 

Joe seemed completely astonished by the forcefulness of the declarations.

 

“You’d better watch how you talk to me little nigga.”

 

Malik moved so quickly that it caught Keana, Nicole, and Terrance off guard. He found himself just a foot away from Joe’s face.

 

“What did you say?”

 

Malik raised his right hand to strike Joe, but a grip on his wrist soon stopped him – it was Nicole.

 

“Come on baby. Don’t do this – it’ll cause more problems than solutions.”

“Listen to your girl, young nigga. The world is something. Think more carefully before you act. Not everyone will be so patient or understanding.”

 

Joe and Clark simultaneously exited Hochi and abandoned their food mission, as if they were one person. Ruth lingered.

 

She stood in front of Terrance, Keana, Malik, and Nicole. Her gaze drifted from each of them to the next and back again. All five of them remained silent for what seemed like a long time. Ruth finally broke this period of solemnity.

 

“Children, I’m sorry you had to witness that. Don’t let it discourage you. Keep doing what y’all are doing. I’m proud.”

 

She went a few more paces toward the door before sharing a final thought.

 

“Men of all ages could benefit from more self-control and emotional management. Young man, continue to trust the woman standing by your side. Heed her advice.”

 

With that, Ruth disappeared into the night. The four Howard students looked at each other with stares that combined bewilderment and intrigue.

 

“Four orders of three wings and fries. Four large mixes. The food’s ready.”

 

The announcement from behind the glass reminded them of how quickly things could return to normal in such an atypical setting. Terrance and Malik stepped up to grab the bags, filled with the Hochi cups and boxes to which they’d grown so accustomed.

 

They both muttered thanks to the woman, and the four of them re-entered the moderately cold November air. Keana suggested what they were all thinking.

 

“Do y’all want to take this food to the Yard and eat it there?”

 

Everyone nodded in agreement, and they began the journey south on Georgia Avenue. They marched on in silence- each of them trying to adequately process what they had just gone through.

 

They made it to Howard Place, busted a left, and decided to stop and eat near the Carnegie Building. As they sat and got comfortable, Nicole took over the distribution of the food. The four of them used combinations of their hands and utensils to dig into the delicious fried food.

 

They ate with relative quietness surrounding them, though they took breaks to lick the sticky orange sauce from their fingers – inevitably making noise as they did so. Fifteen minutes into their meal, Malik felt compelled to break the silence and express his thoughts.

 

“That was pretty fucking wild, right? I mean – those old men really had some nerve.”

 

Terrance immediately chimed in.

 

“Hell yeah. They were so out of line. You definitely stood your ground well though.”

 

Both Keana and Nicole remained uncharacteristically unresponsive. Malik wanted more validation for the course of action that he took, so he prompted them.

 

“Ladies, what did you all think of what happened in there?”

 

Keana and Nicole shifted in a way that indicated some level of discomfort. Nicole ultimately weighed in first.

 

“I don’t know about Keana, but the last thing that the woman said to us stood out to me. Granted, it was a shitty situation, but you acted very impulsively Malik. It could’ve gotten bad.”

 

Another set of couples passed them as Nicole concluded her sentiments. The eight Bison exchanged pleasantries in the forms of nods and slight grins. Once they were out of earshot, Keana picked up where Nicole left off.

 

“I completely agree. I know that it was a setting filled with disrespect, but you guys generally can’t let your pride lead you off the grid when it comes to matters like that.”

 

Terrance and Malik both grappled with the insight of the women they’d selected as partners. Their words combined with the knowledge of Ruth and quite frankly left them dumbfounded.

 

“Thank you ladies. I’m sorry,” Malik stated.

 

Nicole, Keana, Terrance, and Malik then found themselves reflecting on their roles who had to be in constant community with life-long residents of D.C. None of them had a clear answer on the best way to mediate the inherent tension.

 

Following a few more minutes, Nicole suddenly jumped up, having recalled the idea she’d shared with Malik earlier.

 

“We should all go to Burr and swim in the pool.”

 

The three faces in front of her lit up.

 

“I’m down, but don’t you think it might be locked?”

 

Keana’s question articulated the only practical barrier that any of them could foresee.

 

“It may be, but we should still give it a shot.”

 

With the encouragement of Nicole, they all got up, walked past a few iconic structures – ranging from Douglass Hall to Aldridge Theatre – and came upon Burr shortly thereafter. Terrance tested the door, and their fears were assuaged when it opened.

 

They happily descended the few flights of stairs to the pool area; as members of the College of Arts and Sciences, all of them had taken beginning swimming that semester and were familiar with the layout of the building.

 

Once they all got situated around the pool, Terrance wasted no time. He stripped down to his underwear and jumped in. Nicole, Keana, and Malik soon followed. The water washed over them with expert coolness.

 

As they enjoyed the pool and each other, they realized that problems like the situation they’d encountered that night would likely pop up again as their Howard careers progressed.

 

However, for now, they were more than content to soak in the wisdom of Black women and water.

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The Gift of Grandparents

Today, September 8, 2019, is National Grandparents’ Day.

I have been particularly reflective leading up to it, as this is the first time I’m commemorating this occasion with all four of my grandparents residing in the ancestral realm.

Many thoughts have emerged about them – their lives, their sacrifices, their love – and how they made my existence possible in every sense.

Recognizing that the gift of grandparents is the best present that can be bestowed upon a person, I offer a few thoughts on who these four irreplaceable people were.

***

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Walter Jackson Sr., 1900-1983

Born in the American South in 1900, Walter Jackson Sr. lived through the vast majority of the twentieth century and was a revered icon of Tallulah, Louisiana.

A community-oriented businessman, he operated a cab company, worked for Yerger Oil, and ran dancing establishments where people could decompress after long work weeks.

He survived a great deal – World War I, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and the ubiquitous racism of the Jim Crow South that informed all of his experiences.

When he was a younger man, he briefly considered joining the millions of Black people who ventured from the South to the American North & West, searching for – as Isabel Wilkerson would put it – warmer suns. He boarded a locomotive heading to Chicago and arrived safely after nearly a day of travel. He jumped off the train, got a blast of the wintery winds in his face, and immediately sought the next thing moving back to the South. This just may be one of my favorite stories about him.

He was married once before meeting my grandmother. Sadly, his first wife passed away, and that union produced no children. Soon after meeting my grandmother, he swiftly married her and proceeded to have thirteen children over twenty years. He was 48 when his eldest child was born and 68 when his final child entered the Earth.

My mother often reflects on her father, who I did not have the good fortune of physically meeting during this lifetime. She describes him as a patient and caring Elder – a man who would labor assiduously to ensure that the City of Tallulah – particularly its Black residents – were taken care of.

He joined Mt. Olive Baptist Church in the mid-twentieth century and dutifully served as a deacon until he passed. An especially resonant refrain of his time as a steward of the City of Tallulah entails him regularly venturing to the community grocery store, Doug’s, purchasing whole chickens and cans of oil, and distributing them throughout Tallulah.

Toward the end of his life, as he valiantly fought diabetes, his doctors informed him that a leg amputation would alleviate some of the worst pain he was experiencing. With the wisdom of 82 years on Earth, and the smile that had warmed northeast Louisiana for decades, he respectfully declined.

With the grace of the ages, he exited this life on his own terms. I believe that my calmness, my commitment to social justice, and my sense of peace are directly attributable to him.

A leader of Tallulah, Louisiana and my beloved maternal grandfather – I celebrate him.

***

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Mary Lee Dunbar Jackson, 1926-2018

A wise teacher, unyielding prayer warrior, and compassionate friend.

Mary Lee Dunbar Jackson was born in Rodney, Mississippi on the eve of the Great Depression, and she primarily experienced the next 92 years of global and American history from that region.

She and her siblings grew up in a farming community where she developed a unique sense of bravery. When my sister and I were small children, she regaled us with stories about how she used to swim in the Mississippi River. She was baptized in the same body of water when she was ten. She was absolutely fearless.

Around the time she was 20, she decided to move to Tallulah, Louisiana – just a couple hours away from Rodney. The next seven decades were filled with the happiness and prosperity she deserved – just over a dozen children, a loving husband, a supportive church family, and the completion of her bachelor’s degree from Alcorn State University.

My grandmother was simply a tour de force – she glided through the world with grace and goodwill, and she was adored by so many people.

One memory of her that stands out occurred just a few years ago, while I was still in law school at LSU. We were shopping at Doug’s, and a local community member approached us. They greeted us with the routine – “Hey Mrs. Jackson!”

After conversing for a few minutes, the community member shared a thought that had been boiling up –

“Mrs. Jackson, you should have been the Mayor of Tallulah.”

We all grinned as the conversation continued.

That moment stuck with me because it felt so true – my grandmother was a stateswoman, a mentor, an Elder, and a friend to myriad people.

Her wisdom, encouragement, and love push me to be better every single day of my life.

She spoke to me regularly on the physical plane, and she speaks to me still from the ancestral plane.

I am listening, my cherished maternal grandmother.

***

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Leon Henderson Hairston, 1935-1991

A son of the Carolinas, a veteran of the U.S. military, a debonair young groom, a greatly admired father, and a doting grandfather – if only for four months on this physical plane – Leon Henderson Hairston was born in 1935 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Soon after I was born, and he received word of my arrival, he asked my Uncle Ed to carry him to my parents’ home to meet me. He was tired from complications from liver & kidney failure, but he was determined to hold his first grandchild. He succeeded in this endeavor, and I had the great honor of spending his final few months on Earth with him.

In the half of a century that preceded that moment, he served as a diligent son, brother, husband, and father.

His father abandoned him, his mother, and his younger siblings when he was just 14, but he never missed a step. He eventually began a career at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, married my grandmother, and built up a family of his own, comprised of five boys.

My father will sometimes recount the story of joining Phillips Chapel Baptist Church alongside his mother, brothers, and father. My father was about ten years old. Following a typical Sunday service, my grandfather stood and marched down to the front of the church. My grandmother, father, and uncles soon followed.

These stories characterized my perception of him, even years after he entered the ancestral plane – a quiet, focused man of faith who took his familial responsibilities quite seriously. I imagine that I pull a great deal of my resolve from his example.

His legacy looms large in my life. The way that my father and uncles still reflect on him manifests how incredible of a man he was.

I will hold tight to those four months that I spent with him for all of my days.

Thank God for the gift of a praying and steadfast grandfather.

I carry him with me always.

***

Grandma Hairston

Jeannette Bailey Hairston, 1937-2007

Memories swiftly emerge of wonderful times in the Winston-Salem house. My paternal grandmother cared for me diligently during the first five years of my life.

She had a bountiful laugh, a peaceful spirit, and a warm sense of love that flowed through the home that she built for her five boys.

We were mischievous together, in every good way imaginable. For example, she allowed me to use Q-Tips to clean my ears. My mother at least tacitly forbade the practice, for fear of damage to my eardrums, but Grandma Hairston allowed it. It became our little secret.

Under a meek and relatively soft-spoken exterior existed a spirit of tenacity and perseverance. My father informed me that she cleaned the residences of wealthy white people in the Winston-Salem area.

Laboring though the evils of Jim Crow segregation and the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, my paternal grandmother stood as a proud Black woman who derived so much joy from her family.

Once she married my grandfather, the boys came in rapid succession – born over the course of the 1960s.

Aside from that cleaning career, she dedicated her attention and energy to being an attentive mother and homemaker.

From the 16 years I spent with her on Earth, her million-watt smile and rich laugh stand out to me the most.

During sermonic reflections, my father often quips about how his mother could transform a jar of mayonnaise into an entire meal for her boys. That industrious spirit served her well as she navigated the pitfalls of American racism and made it all happen to the best of her ability.

I honor her warm spirit and her quiet dignity. It must not have been easy, but you couldn’t tell if you spoke with her, laughed with her, or simply sat in her presence.

What an honor it is to be her descendant – to journey in the legacy of her love.

***

I will remain eternally grateful for the wonderful gift of grandparents. Rest peacefully, beloveds. Thank you.

Love always,

Drew

 

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Who Gets to Be Vulnerable

This essay is a review of Jesmyn Ward’s first novel, Where the Line Bleeds

One of the high points of 2017 was my discovery of Jesmyn Ward. I picked up Sing, Unburied, Sing in the late fall and immediately became transfixed by its impactful prose. After finishing it, I knew that I wanted to explore this talented author’s other works.
Following a few other reads, ranging from Little Fires Everywhere to An American Marriage, I encountered Where The Line Bleeds – her first book. I completed the novel earlier this year, and it sent my mind soaring.
Set in fictional Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, it follows the lives of twin teenage brothers during the summer after their high school graduation. It explores the themes that are often found in Ms. Ward’s other pieces – including race, financial woes, and drug addiction – while conveying its various messages in extremely relatable ways.
As Joshua and Christophe, the protagonists, navigated their ways through job hunts, romances, and family drama, I found myself contemplating my own journey and considering how precarious some of its roads can be and have been.
To put that reflection in greater context, I must travel back in time by nearly a decade. Though I am now an attorney working in D.C., I was once a twelfth-grade student living in suburban central Ohio. I committed to attending Howard University early on in my final year of high school, so I fully embraced my newly-appreciated ability to just be a teenager and have fun.
Like Christophe and Joshua, I chilled with my friends, smoked pot, and spent time thinking about what the future had in store. Unlike the twins, I was spared the apprehension of not knowing what was going to immediately come next, but I definitely connected with them on the general anxiety of being a young Black American man.
It is worth noting that a source of tension arises in the novel when Joshua gets a job on the docks and Christophe remains unemployed. This occurrence follows an admittedly hilarious scene in which Joshua and Christophe show up high to fill out applications for positions on the docks. Christophe eventually turns to the twins’ cousin, Dunny, who puts him on the weed selling game.
As Christophe delves deeper into the trade, he begins to associate with another member of their community, Javon, even more. A daily practice emerges in which Christophe hangs out at Javon’s home during the daytime, simultaneously hosting clients and being constantly aware of the potential presence of the police.
This portion of the novel made me recall an incident close to my high school graduation. I joined a few of my friends – two white guys and a Black young woman – for a night of typical senior revelry. We ultimately decided to smoke a joint near an undeveloped plot of land across from one of the shopping centers in our suburb.
Casual conversation turned into a ritual with which many teenagers are familiar – the blunt got passed around the car as we each puffed in turn. Smiles emerged among the barely veiled haze, and we began to speak about the upcoming graduation ceremony. As the rolled cigarillo approached its final roach form, we noticed a police cruiser approaching the back of the van. I imagine that we all registered its presence at the same time. One of my friends surreptitiously tossed the contraband out the window, and we became silent. The officer walked up and posed the typical commands and inquiries.
License and registration.

What are you kids up to?
I stayed quiet as one of my white friends took on the primary speaking role. We all subconsciously knew that this method of engagement would be the best way to escape legal trouble. After a few minutes, the officer wrapped up his exchange with us and wished us a good night – though he more than implied that he should make our way home.
On the ride back to our neighborhoods, the same friend who had done the talking wondered out loud if the outcome would’ve been different had it been just me and our woman-friend. It captured our thoughts well in that moment. I’ve pondered that exchange off and on for the past nine years, particularly given where we all ended up.

We became lawyers, world adventurers, and non-profit starters. The factors of that night aligned in a manner that made it possible for us to be afforded the best outcome – to merely walk away unscathed.
As I read Where The Line Bleeds, I was certainly reminded that not everyone gets off so easily in this racist and oppressive system. Though a police officer doesn’t enter Javon’s home in the story, one could ostensibly imagine what would have happened if one did come in that space.
An additional frustration comes from envisioning my own alternate reality vis-à-vis the realities of myriad other Americans. Even if my friends and I had been arrested and charged that night, our parents would have been able to step in, hire lawyers, and minimize the damage to our future trajectories. For Christophe and Joshua, young men who had to deal with a relatively absent mother and a drug-addicted father, the stakes – and risks to their freedom – would have been much higher.
The combined effect of reflecting on the event before my high school graduation and reading Where The Line Bleeds inherently pushed me to consider this current political moment quite pensively. After finishing the book, a question formed in my mind and remains there:
Who gets to be vulnerable?
Stated another way, who gets to be human?
In this climate, which is marked by rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia, the imperative nature of these questions gains magnitude every day.
Did me and my friends, as suburban high school kids, get to be vulnerable?
Do Christophe and Joshua get to be?
Do Black and Brown victims of the prison-industrial complex, currently behind bars, get to be human?
Do drug-addicted folks in the Northeast get to be?
The answers to these questions likely vary – fueling the root problem. Each person, with their unique qualities, skills, and personality, should feel uninhibited in their pursuit of vulnerability. That is the fundamental power of Ms. Ward’s phenomenal writing – she creates stories that reinforce the humanity of some of the most marginalized people in our society.
As she indicated during her second, historic National Book Award acceptance speech last November, the joy and sorrow of poor Black Americans along the Gulf Coast are universal. The triumphs, fears, and excitement of Christophe, Joshua, and all the members of the Bois Sauvage community should resonate with each of us. Moreover, they should inform our approach to investments in public benefits, education, and substance abuse treatment – optimally unclouded by the racial bias that has traditionally pervaded these American systems.
Take the opioid crisis, for example. It is quite jarring to witness the current, negative impact of heroin, prescription drugs, and other harmful substances on so many Americans. However, it is also disheartening to juxtapose the federal government’s response to this crisis to its reaction to crack cocaine just a few decades ago. A punitive, harsh-on-crime approach has been replaced by a restorative one focused on public health solutions.

In this situation, it is clear that the differences in these reactions turn on the race of the people who were most impacted. It would be hard to imagine Jeff Sessions directing the Justice Department to not prosecute the Black citizens of Bois Sauvage who are addicted to drugs. On the contrary, given his actions as the Attorney General so far, he would instruct his prosecutors to slam the book on them and, quite ludicrously, recommend the death penalty for some of them. These actions would stand in stark contrast to drug treatment practices in racially homogeneous places like New Hampshire and Vermont.
Even considering all of this, and though we live in difficult times, I am encouraged by a number of things – most relevant in this setting is the end of Where The Line Bleeds. Without explicitly ruining the conclusion of the story, I must express that it wraps up with a hopeful refrain.
Christophe and Joshua both realize that, as humans, the challenges and adversity that they face all play into the resilience they develop. Despite the struggles that exist on the horizon, ranging from financial insecurity to caring for their ailing, nearly-blind grandmother, they likely have a sense that the full-circle nature of the universe will pan out in their favor. I personally think back on my life so far and realize that theme has been a recurring one. From living as a bright-eyed teenager full of limitless possibilities to working as a civil rights lawyer during the Trump Era, I recognize the beauty and interconnectedness of it all.
I thank Ms. Ward for her timely and gorgeous writing, a characteristic that has been a hallmark of the work that has built her amazing career. More importantly, I’m grateful for the characters that she has deftly created – people who make me reflect on the qualities that unite us all.
They, along with Ms. Ward, motivate me to continue to fight for a world in which all people can fully experience their humanity and vulnerability.

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Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City)

 

What’s better than a long weekend?

A trip to an incredible international city over a long weekend.

After considering a couple of options, my law school buddy, Harry, and I excitedly agreed to visit Mexico City for the first time; we hopped on a plane there as Frederick Douglass Weekend began. Fortunately, we found a direct flight out of Dulles (and back a few days later), as well as an affordable Airbnb right off of Nuevo Leon – one of the main streets near the center of the city. As soon as we got settled in, an exploration characterized by fantastic food, breathtaking art, and soulful people commenced. Here’s a recap of the trip, complete with photos and various musings:

Night 1

Harry and I ventured outside to find some food and explore the neighborhood. After several minutes, we stumbled upon a restaurant that had a mariachi band in full swing. We ordered a couple of Pacificos and enjoyed the catchy music, diving right into the familial feeling of the space. Upon learning that the kitchen had closed for the evening, we walked back toward the Airbnb and settled on a restaurant called Los creadores del Taco al Pastor. Only a few minutes after sitting down, we were consuming flavorful tacos de chorizo and taking in the temperate night air. As we finished the meal, fatigue fully set in, and we retired to the Airbnb for the night.

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Arriving at customs after landing in Mexico City

Day 1

We woke up early the next morning to take on the first grand adventure: a tour of the ancient Teotihuacan pyramids. About a week prior to taking off, we booked a day-long excursion through Trip Advisor, and we were both pretty hype leading up to it.

Before we journeyed to a nearby Four Seasons to get picked up, we stopped by Ojo de Agua, a quaint breakfast spot in the neighborhood that would soon become a regular feature of the trip. After reviewing the impressive menu, we both decided on the chilaquiles, mine with pulled pork and his with an egg. A refreshing jug of mango juice and two vibrant coffees accompanied this hearty meal. Although it was all delicious, we quickly wrapped up to ensure that we would make it to the rendez-vous point on time.

 

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First breakfast in Mexico City

 

We arrived at the hotel in good time, and, following a few more stops to pick up passengers, we were off. Our knowledgeable tour guide provided insight on various aspects of Mexico City as we made our way to the site of the pyramids. Admittedly, I was reading Hillbilly Elegy the entire time, but I was still plugged into her lively descriptions of myriad things.

After stopping at a shop outside of the actual site, which entailed trying mezcal (more on this later) and picking up souvenirs, we made it to the site. Two majestic pyramids – the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon – stood proudly among an impressive set of smaller ruins. We climbed both of them and explored areas in between for a couple of hours. Such an impactful initial experience set the tone for what the rest of the day and trip would have in store.

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A somewhat stern selfie

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Harry capturing a pic of the Pyramid of the Sun

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A photo of one of the smaller ruins

After a filling lunch at a buffet near the pyramids, we made our way to the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe. This beautiful edifice stands out because of its historic lore – according to legend, the Virgin Mary made an appearance on its grounds over 500 years ago. On certain days, millions of people can find themselves observing the ornate decorations and detailed architecture with one another. It certainly served as a fitting end to the tour.

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Approaching the Basilica from the tour bus

 

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Harry taking in an awe-inspiring view of the Basilica

Night 2

Following a comprehensive and exhausting trip to the pyramids & Basilica, Harry and I decided to visit a neighborhood bar to try some mezcal. Mezcal is a smoky and distinctive Mexican liquor that is quite similar to tequila. Following a five-minute walk, we found ourselves at La Clandestina. The bar provided a laidback setting, great drinks, and a delicious combination of guacamole and pork rinds (made a mental note for any future dinner parties I host). Still full from the buffet lunch, we skipped grabbing a formal dinner and caught some rest for the second full day.

Day 2

Waking up refreshed on a beautiful Sunday morning, Harry and I picked up coffees from Ojo de Agua, walked around the neighborhood for a minute, and caught a ride to the Historic District of Mexico City. Little did we know that the best breakfast of the trip awaited us.

We made it to El Cardenal, a restaurant that could hold its own against any brunch spot in D.C. After a forty minute wait, we sat down and were immediately greeted with a pastry tray. As we both admitted later, we were a bit reluctant to take one for fear of messing up our appetites. After a brief pause, we acquiesced and slid our respective pastries onto our plates – the best decision of the trip.

Folks, it’s hard to put into words how delicious, light, flaky, and airy these pastries were. It felt like we were eating clouds picked from the sky on a mild summer day. My only regret of the trip is that I didn’t take a picture of them. Our meal of huevos veracruzes (egg enchiladas covered in mole) and mango juice was phenomenal as well, but the pastries stood out as the best things we ate on the trip. I can’t recommend this place highly enough.

After breakfast, we walked to the center of the Historic District and marveled at the exciting activity around us. The scene made us both recall previous visits to Barcelona. We continued our sojourn to a nearby market, where we encountered products ranging from candles to live birds. After exploring the market for a bit, we decided to head to the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia.

The museum, housed in a magnificent building near the city’s financial district, tells the stories of the people who have contributed to Mexico’s rich history. Though we only spent around 75 minutes inside, the structures and narratives conveyed vivid, lasting images. It served as a nice transition to an anticipated lively evening.

 

 

 

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View of the inner courtyard of Museo Nacional de Antropologia

 

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Best selfie of the trip

Night 3

Harry had an idea in the week leading up to the trip – to check out a Lucha Libre match. It turned out to be a marvelous one. We stopped by the Airbnb to catch a quick nap, and then we headed to the venue.

I already knew it would be a great event when we found two chicharrones quesadillas outside of the venue for thirty pesos (just under $2). Harry grabbed two ringside tickets, and we settled in for a highly entertaining two-hour match. As we enjoyed our micheladas (sans the thick tomato paste that covered the rim), several wrestlers entered the ring to put on a highly theatrical show. I never watched much WWE, but it certainly gave off that vibe – based on my limited knowledge. It was a blast from start to finish, and it was a great treat to be so close to the action.

 

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A still of the main event and the michelada

Following the match’s conclusion, we ventured to Place Garibaldi – an open plaza filled with mariachi bands and great activity. We decided to stop at one of the bars near the center of Place Garibaldi to get some mezcal and chill out. Following a couple of hours of good conversation and great music, we went back to the neighborhood, grabbing a few more tacos de chorizo from Los creadores del Taco al Pastor before calling it a night.

Day 3

The final full day felt more like a Sunday than the previous 24 hours. We woke up and completed our third and last trip to Ojo de Agua – settling on coffees and almond croissants. Following breakfast, Harry wanted to check out more of the markets near the Historic District, and I decided to take a longer walk around the neighborhood. Accordingly, we split up for a couple of hours.

 

I meandered throughout Condesa – our gorgeous neighborhood for the weekend – and found myself near some of the large skyscrapers in the business district. Of note, I ran into a few elaborate structures on the street, including one of the great, late Muhammad Ali.

 

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Muhammad Ali in the business district of Mexico City

I ended up making a large circle and rested at the Airbnb for a bit. When Harry returned, we determined that we wanted to get lunch near the Frida Kahlo Museum in southeast Mexico City. Though we later learned that the museum is closed on Mondays (along with a number of other ones), we enthusiastically headed toward its neighborhood. When we arrived, we ended up walking through a delightfully quaint part of Mexico City, complete with cobblestone roads and small shops. We eventually happened upon a restaurant that delivered the best lunch of the trip. Although I neglected to catch the name of the dining establishment, the green sauce that covered the enchiladas I ordered still stands out prominently in my mind.

 

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Lunch at an unknown restaurant near the neighborhood of the  Frida Kahlo Museum

Following the satisfying lunch, we took off to one of the final excursions of the trip – the Xochimilco Canals. Located about half an hour southeast of central Mexico City, these canals offer the perfect setting for a relaxing evening on the water. After arriving and grabbing some waters and brews for the boat ride, we met a cool couple from Chicago, Katie and Eddie. The four of us decided to team up for a two-hour ride that would only cost us 250 pesos a piece. Soon thereafter, we were drifting on the calm river, enjoying the perfect weather and easy-going discussions. At one point, a mariachi band joined us and serenaded the boat. We all basked in wonderful R&R that it provided.

 

 

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A photo from the ride on the canal, capturing the sun’s majesty

Night 4

As we rode back to Condesa from the canals, we realized how quickly the trip was coming to a close. So many memories had already been compiled from the previous 72 hours, but we still wanted to make a few more – namely by concluding the trip with a nice dinner. After doing a little research in the Airbnb, we picked Azul Condesa. The restaurant sat just under half of a mile from the Airbnb, but, upon arriving, we learned that there was a wait. We killed the time by completing one more walk throughout the neighborhood and grabbing our final glasses of mezcal at the bar next door to Azul Condesa.

After about an hour, Harry got a text indicating that our table was ready. What followed was a meal second only to the Sunday breakfast at El Cardenal. We glided through a multi-course meal, ranging from shrimp in a spicy, delectable sauce to desserts with incredible custards. For our entrees, Harry had enchiladas and I had a filet of beef – both of our dishes were covered in the most succulent mole we’d ever eaten. Best of all, this feast came out to about 600 pesos (approximately $40) for each of us.

We drifted to the Airbnb contentedly and packed our bags for the trip home.

Concluding Thoughts

I highly recommend Mexico City as an international travel destination. The art, the culture, and the food are unparalleled. It’s an affordable town that has plenty of attractions to keep you engaged – whether you’re staying for a weekend, a week, or a few months.

Before I sign off, I have to share the best memory and the best picture of the trip.

Best memory: Blasting Bodak Yellow in the car from Place Garibaldi back to Condesa

Best picture:

 

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Descending the Pyramid of the Moon and plotting my return to Mexico City. Photo Credit: Harry England

Hasta luego, Mexico City. Muchas gracias.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Insider’s View of Today’s SCOTUS Arguments on Voter Purging in Ohio

This piece appears on Advancement Project’s blog. 

Earlier today, the Supreme Court of the United States held the oral argument for Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute. This case concerns the maintenance of states’ voter rolls under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

Originating in Ohio, the primary issue of the case concerns whether a state can use a voter’s inactivity to purge that voter from the state’s rolls. The state of Ohio maintained that these federal statutes supported its procedure, known as the Ohio Supplemental Process; the A. Philip Randolph Institute argued that the Supplemental Process violates the NVRA & HAVA. Advancement Project filed an amicus brief in this case that focused on how Ohio’s past racially discriminatory voting practices may have contributed to the inactivity that was at the heart of the controversy in this case.

During today’s oral argument, counsel for the Ohio Secretary of State, the Solicitor General of the United States, and counsel for the A. Philip Randolph Institute delivered remarks on behalf of their clients. The attorney for the Secretary of State attempted to justify the Supplemental Process by associating the use of the Supplemental Process with the possibility of identifying voters who moved. Throughout the argument, this premise proved to be tenuous at best.

Of note, while questioning the lawyer for the Ohio Secretary of State, Justice Sonia Sotomayor discussed the ostensible disproportionate impact of this purging process on minority voters. She pointed to Ohio’s elimination of Golden Week — a voter registration drive that benefited a number of Black and Brown people in the state as one reason that a voter may choose to not vote. She also expressed the negative impact of long hours and extensive lines on voter participation for people of color. She subsequently noted that there is a strong argument for discriminatory impact in this case.

The solicitor general offered the government’s perspective in the case, and Justice Sotomayor conveyed another concern. Since the passage of the NVRA in the early 1990s, Democratic and Republican presidential administrations have maintained a consistent position on the statutory interpretation of these statutes. However, under the leadership of this current administration, the Justice Department shifted its position on the matter. Justice Sotomayor noted how unusual it was for the Office of the Solicitor General to change its perspective so drastically. Several minutes later, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chimed in and reaffirmed that the prior position of the United States was that non-voting is not necessarily a reliable indicator that a person moved.

During his argument, the lawyer for A. Philip Randolph Institute emphasized that the Ohio Supplemental Process relies on six years of non-voting and leads to the vast over-purging of voters. Following a line of questioning from Justice Stephen Breyer, he noted that 70 percent of people who received the confirmation notice from the state of Ohio did not respond to it; moreover, he stressed that this did not mean that they necessarily moved. As counsel for the Ohio Secretary of State delivered his rebuttal, a concluding troubling point emerged purged voters receive no notice once they are officially removed from the rolls.

Following this action-packed oral argument, my colleagues at Advancement Project and I anxiously await the Court’s decision in the case in a few months.

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