Pandemic Reflections on Money

This piece originally appeared in Vox Populi Public Sphere on February 10, 2021

To the Sumlins, whose generosity will never be forgotten

Money stresses. Read that as a subject and verb as well as a general, ever-present thought. Michael Arceneaux, my fellow Howard alum, writes about this subject with painful eloquence in I Don’t Want To Die Poor, inspiring me to lay out here my own complicated relationship with money.

Throughout my adult life, money has always been there – or should I say my fixation on my lack of money is perennially there. As a child, I didn’t consider money that much, if at all. My mother worked in corporate America, and my father engaged in ministry work; they created and sustained a very comfortable childhood for me and my sister, beginning with our births in 1991 and 1996 in North Carolina, respectively. We took several trips to Disney World, lived in spacious homes across the Midwest as we moved for my parents’ various work opportunities, and never seemed to experience any delay when requesting the video game system or popular toy of the day. We were a young Black family, and my parents undoubtedly faced the racial discrimination that defines America; my sister and I just felt like our material and spiritual needs were met by the world our parents forged for us. 

In 2009, I enrolled at Howard University, and my parents and sister moved to Oklahoma. My father assumed the senior pastorship of a historically Black church in east Oklahoma City – – the historically Black section of the city. Although my parents and I never discussed the specifics of their income, I had every indication that we were pretty well off. I began my college career, opened a college checking account that October, and settled into a plane of possibilities. Fully controlling money was certainly a new experience for my 18-year old self. I worked only one job during my time in high school; I was a junior barista for a Black-owned coffee shop in downtown Columbus, Ohio. During this short-lived period of brewing espresso and preparing chai tea lattes, I deposited my earnings in a pre-existing bank account that my mother had. I couldn’t have made over $150, and, after I quit, I largely reverted to requesting money from my parents when I wanted to hang out with my friends. Just a couple years later, I was in D.C. with a bonafide debit card, using scholarship money and contributions from family to assert my independence in any way I could. 

I considered myself to be relatively engaged in politics during this period of my life, but the reality of the Great Recession likely didn’t fully register in my mind. As the Obama Administration settled into power and ensured that corporations were shielded from bankruptcy, I remained blissful in simply moving the few hundred dollars in my bank account at any given time from this restaurant on U Street to that Howard swag from the bookstore. As I went through my upper years at Howard, I came to deepen my interest in politics by running for and working in student government. As a bonus, I learned that the positions paid modest stipends over the course of the academic year. This policy partially paved the path for me to study abroad in South Africa during the summer of 2011. Between steady family support and additions to my bank account from student government roles, I rarely thought about money. During that time, enough of it was at my disposal. 

Then in 2012, in a moment likely felt by nearly all Black Americans at some point in their lives, the finite nature of money steadily took up all the energy it could. My parents faced a church split, and my father’s income vanished for a time. Although my mother later became a teacher, she didn’t have a salaried job when they first moved to Oklahoma. Although my father started another church soon after his official ouster from his previous role, the instability of that period pushed my parents to seek bankruptcy protections. At the same time, as I entered my senior year of college,  I lost the merit scholarship that I’d held the previous three years. I thankfully got a paid internship that defrayed some of the costs, but I had to rely on private loans, university grants, and generous contributions from my community. I generally had enough money to see me through to my graduation, but that nine-month time frame made me reconsider just how aware of money I was.  I went from thinking about money occasionally to reflecting on every dime I had pretty much hourly. 

I ended up moving to Louisiana after college to attend law school. I used a similar combination of scholarship money and federal student loans to fund my time in Baton Rouge. Even as some factors improved across my family’s financial station, I began to comprehend during this time in my life that solvency would likely elude me for some time. For one, I knew that I would pursue a career as a public interest lawyer fairly early on in law school, with the incredibly modest pay to accompany it. Over the course of this period, primarily 2013-2016, I benefited from the benevolence of family, friends, and church members in the form of gifts and small loans — tangible, selfless investments in me and the future I sought to pave for myself. 

I got to the end of law school and began my career both deeply indebted to my community and the U.S. government. I returned to D.C. for this purpose, and it quickly became evident just how expensive the city is without the safety net that college provides. I made $42,500 in my first job out of law school in 2016, not including bar prep fees and a small loan repayment stipend. This number is right up the alley of many public service jobs that are available to recent graduates. I soon understood why D.C. ranks among the most expensive U.S. cities, and why it’s prohibitive for so many folks. I rented a room in a large row house in Columbia Heights – just a few blocks away from Howard. I attempted to keep expenses to the necessities of groceries, my car note, and insurance, and I strived to save even a little money. At that point, I was still in the forgiveness period of my student loans, but they loomed. I barely broke even every month. 

After ten months, I was pushed to the financial brink. I had to reach out to a wealthy friend from law school to ask for a formal loan in the amount of $2500. I hated to put her and her husband in that position, but, given my knowledge of U.S. history,  I didn’t feel comfortable asking another Black person for that sum of money. I typed up a contract to indicate that I would pay them back $250 a month for twelve months — bringing that interest rate to a decent 20% — and they agreed. Soon after, I took another job that conferred a nearly $20,000 increase. I paid them back on time, but that entire first year in D.C. made me fully aware of how America’s legacy of anti-Blackness was playing out in my life. 

I did everything right, but I perpetually had very little money. I found time to travel to places that I wanted to go, such as Mexico City, but a sentiment resembling guilt often settled in my mind. During this time, if I had a disposable $500, I was doing excellently. Toward the middle of 2018, I was almost a year into my new role, and my sister, now a recent college graduate, decided to come to D.C. to get a master’s degree from Georgetown. I found a new apartment to accommodate us. I liked what I saw when I toured it, but it was a two-bedroom apartment within D.C. limits — an inherently expensive thing. As I prepared to move out of my old residence and welcome my sister to the District, cash dwindled. 

I sat in my car one morning that summer, about a month prior to her scheduled arrival. I was stressed by the math of money that constantly made little sense, and then it dawned on me to download the Uber Driver app. I provided all the information it required — driver’s license number, a background check, and car insurance info — and began when it all got approved. This commenced a grueling schedule. I woke up at 6 a.m. or earlier to drive Uber before my salaried job began each day. If I could get an airport run in, I usually could make $35 for the day. I grabbed coffee from the neighborhood 7-11 to get the energy I needed each morning, then I prayed it would carry me several hours ahead in the day to 5 p.m., when I usually left work. 

Perhaps, more than any prior epoch in my life, this time period solidified my anti-capitalist politics. I worked hard balancing two jobs; it still wasn’t enough to achieve financial stability in a meaningful way. 

I appreciated having a little cushion as my sister and I settled into our new home, and we established our collaborative dynamic as adult siblings. However, I realized that the childhood days of obliviousness about money were certainly relics of the past. I thought about money every second – covering bills, sending money to family if I could, saving for vacations with friends. It took up virtually all the space, even as I learned and grew more at my job, where I combatted the school-to-prison pipeline and attacked felony disenfranchisement laws. 

It is clear how I viewed the world, then and now: through an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, abolitionist lens. Still, money practically dominated all aspects of my life. 

That year in D.C. with my sister, cherished as it was, moved very swiftly. I took a job in Texas as she graduated from Georgetown; she charted a path back to Oklahoma to become a high school chemistry teacher. The South called us home, seemingly offering stability. I got an apartment in Austin, started my new job, and tipped my hat to my highest salary to date. I learned I would become an uncle right before I moved to Texas; I could use the wiggle room of a higher salary to dote on my niece. Then, old student loan debts came due, ill-advised romantic pursuits materialized — with the financial requests to boot — and I found myself downloading the Lyft Driver app in February 2020. 

I completed approximately 30 trips over the course of that month, having no idea what the next ten months would have in store.

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Andrew Reginald Hairston: Pandemic Reflections on Money

I did everything right, but I perpetually had very little money.

Andrew Reginald Hairston: Pandemic Reflections on Money
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On the 46th POTUS

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. has begun his term as the 46th President of the United States.

81 million people, myself included, cast ballots for him in the fall of 2020. Over 155 million people voted in total, bringing turnout rates to their highest levels in well over half-a-century.

Between the two options presented to the electorate, Mr. Biden seemed to be the necessary choice, if one had to be made at all. I could and likely will dedicate another essay to the undue onus placed on Black people, particularly Black women, to ‘save our democracy’ at the polls.

He selected a running mate who energized the race and brought an impressive set of history-making credentials with her; Vice President Kamala Harris is the first woman, first Black American, and first South Asian person to assume the vice presidency. This achievement marks another milestone on a career of firsts for Vice President Harris – first Black woman DA of San Francisco, first Black woman Attorney General of California, first Black woman U.S. Senator from California.

Moreover, Mr. Biden ran against an unapologetically racist, self-enriching, aspiring dictator. After an exhausting five years, including his hateful, fear-mongering campaign for the presidency, Mr. Biden’s immediate predecessor departed from the White House in utter shame as the first president to be impeached twice and with virulent notes of white supremacy flowing from his mouth until the very end of his tenure.

However, the legacy of Mr. Biden’s predecessor endures through his imprint on the federal judiciary and the flames of white resentment that he stoked with renewed fervor and that still burn with great intensity.

Again, since Mr. Biden is now the president, he possesses the power to start addressing centuries of harm that have fallen upon the backs of Black and Brown people. Throughout his career, Mr. Biden has been consistent. He unequivocally supports the brutal economic system of racial capitalism, the U.S. imperialist war machine through its military, and the rugged individualism required to achieve the ‘American dream.’ Like many old men, he abused his power and was credibly accused of sexual assault by Tara Reade, a former staffer; this troubling accusation was largely swept under the rug during the 2020 campaign because Mr. Biden’s opponent had more.

Even during a global health crisis that has claimed over 400,000 lives in the United States alone – and a reckoning with racist police violence that led to the largest social movement in American history last summer – Mr. Biden opposes universal healthcare, the cancellation of all student loan debt, and reducing funding to police departments across the country.

As has been the case for the past 50 years, the prison industrial complex grows in intensity as millions of people languish in cages. Mr. Biden championed the 1994 Crime Bill, freeing up millions of dollars to flow to police departments and prisons across the country. He claimed in his victory speech on November 7, 2020 that Black Americans had his back during the general election, so now he has ours; During his inaugural address yesterday, he declared that we can deliver racial justice. Yet, he now offers no remarks on reparations, continues his unyielding support for policing, and has already begun to back track on the $2,000 stimulus relief he promised while campaigning.

$2,000 turned into $1,400, which turned into more calls for unity with white supremacists who attacked the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago under the direction of Mr. Biden’s predecessor. There are no signs that Mr. Biden will soon abandon his allegiance to corporations, the U.S. military, police departments, and prisons – death-making institutions that they all are. All the while, millions of people are suffering in this nation, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Brown, as folks struggle to pay rent, settle bills, and care for their families.

Looming over everything, imperialism and capitalism have driven the world to the brink of ecological collapse, with the window narrowly closing on the time to execute the drastic action that is needed to mitigate the suffering of billions of people

So here we are. The world quite literally cannot take the strains that this empire has placed upon it. A diverse cabinet and the placement of phrases such as COVID-19, Racial Equity, and Climate as priority areas on the White House website do not change the fact that there aren’t proposals for recurring monthly stimulus checks and even a mere recognition that the U.S. military is one of the largest drivers of climate change in this moment.

Despite it all, Mr. Biden still has an opportunity to turn away from the incremental neoliberalism that has defined his career. He can enact meaningful policies in coordination with the 117th Congress, led by Democrats. Mr. Biden can push for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, steady stimulus payments retroactive to the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival on American shores, widespread student loan debt cancellation, reparations for Black Americans, a return of broad swaths of land to Indigenous peoples, and a severe reduction of funding to the military & police departments – in favor of social services that have been deprived of those critical funds for decades.

We don’t have much time left. People are dying and suffering daily. The world is bending to its breaking point under our pressure.

How will Mr. Biden meet this moment? How will we as we strive to push him to necessary action?

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UALR Law Review – Summer 2020 School Policing Article

In the fall of 2019, I presented at the annual Ben Altheimer Law Review Symposium at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law; my talk concerned school policing in Texas and Arkansas.

I am pleased to share an article that developed from that presentation, Toward the End of School Policing in Texas and Arkansas.

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Reflections from a Black Lawyer on Juneteenth

This piece originally appeared on the American Constitution Society’s ExpertForum blog to commemorate Juneteenth 2020.

I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer early on in my childhood.

If you had asked me for the source of this career aspiration ten years ago, I likely would’ve referenced the John Grisham novels that I consumed as a kid. Then I would’ve told you about the inspiring example set by my aunt Joy, a solo practitioner based in Louisiana.

I became a lawyer at 25 and took great pride in fulfilling that dream – both for myself and my family. Now, with four years of practice behind me, I can stop and reflect more incisively on what it means to be a Black lawyer in the twenty-first century.

As a preliminary point, my 2020 self will be more forthcoming about why I became an attorney. It is a thought process that Black people have employed for nearly 250 years in this country and for more than 400 years on this land, all in an effort to survive: I wanted to become a lawyer to prove that I am worthy. To demonstrate that I am deserving of the accommodations I occupy, the work in which I engage, and the existence that is my own.

I became a lawyer to validate my bookish ways, to show that Black people can be attorneys, and to tell the world that I’m exceptional. Taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion, I should therefore be given what my ancestors were consistently denied.

Not surprisingly, I played right into the hands of respectability politics with this rationale.

By diving into my legal career and reading more about America’s deep-rooted investment in anti-Black racism, I learned how tenuous my true justification was.

Grappling with the works of writers like Isabel Wilkerson, Toni Morrison, and Ibram X. Kendi,I saw that the consistent denial of the full humanity of Black people was integral to every era of this country’s development. Despite our tenacity and ability to adapt within inhumane conditions, armed forces – whether white vigilantes or organized police departments – rose up to destroy any progress that had been made and slaughter entire communities of Black people.

I think of Black people across the South who sought and won elected office during Reconstruction, only to be thwarted by the Compromise of 1877 and the removal of federal troops from the South. I consider the circumstances of the prosperous Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma – burned to the ground in mere hours as Black adults and children were massacred by their white neighbors. I look back to the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia 35 years ago, and I recognize how all levels of the United States government have either been complicit in the racial violence inflicted upon Black people or have been the direct perpetrators of it.

In my work for two racial justice organizations in D.C. – the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Advancement Project’s National Office – I witnessed how the school-to-prison pipeline and voter disenfranchisement laws attempt to relegate Black people to a subhuman category in present times. I tracked the legacies of centuries-old racist policies that operate to keep Black people away from decent housing, adequate health care, the ballot box, educational opportunities, and employment prospects. I heard from directly impacted people who fought to dismantle draconian laws and policies in their communities. I began to more fully understand how deep of a commitment this country has to white supremacy.

But, through all of this state-sanctioned violence and white domestic terrorism, at least I could proclaim that I’m an attorney?

Arriving at this moment – in the midst of a global pandemic and international uprisings against police violence – I feel compelled to reject the tenets of respectability politics even more forcefully. I am certainly determined to use my occupation on the quest to Black liberation, but my career definitely won’t be the thing that saves me.

Black people have done everything imaginable to prove our humanity; we shouldn’t feel any pressure to do anything else.

Despite that truth, I draw much inspiration from what feels like the present revolutionary moment. Black people find themselves alongside multiracial throngs of protesters – all speaking out against police violence and proudly shouting that Black Lives Matter. Local government bodies are taking significant steps to defund police departments, yielding to the pressure placed on them by organizers and community members for years. These notions fit squarely within the framework of prison industrial complex abolition, with the work of Black women like Dr. Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba increasingly entering the public discourse.

Most encouraging of all, people continually acknowledge that the experiences of all Black people must be elevated. A historic march for Black trans lives occurred a day prior to the Supreme Court ruling that the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extend to LGBTQ people. Such actions are critical in a moment where so many people are calling for a radical reimagining of public safety.

One outside of police, surveillance measures, and prisons. One where Black people, especially women and LGBTQ people, feel as though thorough systems of accountability are in place to address harms that may occur.

This Juneteenth, as I look toward the future with a sense of optimism, I take great joy in my individual journey as a Black person and attorney, as well as the collective sojourn of my people. I will continually push back against that urge to be respectable or otherwise perfect to fully engage with my humanity.

I thank the Black people who received word of their freedom in Texas 155 years ago for providing blueprints for a proper celebration and an on-going struggle for justice.

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Fifteen Years on Social Media

It began in 2006. Or perhaps I should say 2004?

If we start in 2005, as a compromise, I can likely pinpoint the moment. I sat in the computer lab in the downtown location of the Columbus Public Library. It was the midpoint of a summer church camp experience, and we took a field trip to the library to pass the days of the season. During one of our thirty-minute sessions, my friends and I chatted about a website called Black Planet.

Intrigued, I went to the website to determine the eligibility criteria. Just be 13? Oh, that would be perfect. I was either approaching or had just passed my fourteenth birthday.

Based on the username that I chose, I imagine that it was the former.

finegenius13

Man, I was such an imaginative child. Fine because I thought I was cute, genius because I just knew I was intelligent, and 13 to commemorate my age at the time.

As soon as I finalized my profile, the creative wonders of Black Planet followed. One could change the design of their page, add music to it, find the pages of friends, and post one’s biography. What wasn’t to love in the mind of a self-aggrandizing teenager?

My Black Planet page remained active for a few years, though it was soon followed by a Myspace account. The revolution seemed to continue with this new medium. One could put their top friends on display for the world to see, add pictures of cars & models to convey one’s interests, and post on the pages of others to see what was going on. Did I mention that music that was also a thing on Black Planet found itself on Myspace as well?

It’s worth mentioning that people born in the year 2000 or later might actually be familiar with Black Planet, given Solange’s recent attempt to revive the platform.

All of this was good until something called Facebook came around. Once I heard of it, I likely began lurking around it, waiting for its exclusive walls to fall. Some may recall – others may not – that in the early days of Facebook, one needed a college email account to join. However, the policy must’ve shifted in the fall of 2006, when I joined.

I imagine if you’re reading this, you likely came to it from Facebook. As you scrolled past Thanksgiving family photos, recipes from BuzzFeed, and a Facebook status from your great aunt, you likely found this.  As ubiquitous as this platform is in our lives, there was a time when kids used it as a text messaging service. It is so funny to go back to the 2006-2009 version of Andrew as told by Facebook, and I guess this serves as an invitation for you to go and see for yourselves. Just don’t hold the worst content against me, please?

Right as I reached the prime Facebook years, I headed off to college, waited a few years, and then signed up for a new site called Twitter. I joined as @moderngriot around 2011, inspired by some of my African Studies classes in undergrad. Don’t worry, I deleted that one, though I’m sure some tech savvy people could resurrect that profile from the far corners of the Internet.

Add Instagram in 2012, and then you have the current trifecta. Following a period during which I thought I could preserve some anonymity on social media, I decided to go by @andrewrhairston on all three platforms a few years ago. These days, it’s not too hard to find my full name through any of the three sites. Even considering the overlap, I have thousands of friends & followers through the three mediums – which is a fascinating thought.

By reflecting on my use of social media, I must address the various problems that frequently come up on these cultural mainstays. A non-exhaustive list includes the general amount of privacy that one gives up by engaging with the platforms, credible allegations of housing discrimination against Black people through Facebook advertisements, misinformation that resulted in 45’s election in 2016, the omnipresence of Neo-Nazis on all of the platforms, & issues with how truthful politicians can or cannot be in their advertisements.

Personally, I recall making an internal vow to not post Instagram stories when they were introduced to the platform. I downloaded Snapchat* for a second, but then I deleted it just as quickly. I was concerned that it’d create a Black Mirror-type of opportunity to overshare, and Instagram stories seemed to present a similar scenario. Then a birthday trip to Nashville arose in July 2018, and my dear friend Amber showed me how the tool could be used for impactful storytelling. I now fully see where she was coming from; these days, I probably average one story per week.

As I write this, it’s been astounding to sit back and think about my transformation, as well as that of social media, over the past fifteen years. What started as a way to jest with friends and express childhood crushes has developed into a way to learn of earthly transition & mourn in solidarity with the families of the departed, publicly. My late grandmother was the only one of my grandparents to have a Facebook, and it brings warm memories to visit her “Remembering” page on the site. As I grow older with grace, it’s heartwarming to look back on the tangible evidence of that progression.

Even with all of the concerns I listed, I doubt I’m leaving the platforms anytime soon. They are helpful to me – in sharing moments with the people I love, grieving with folks when someone passes away, and – through creative ways – sharing my vision for a racially just world. I get to dote on the little ones entering the world from friends & family, share humorous musings through tweets & my stories, raise money for causes near to my heart, and – maybe most importantly – refine my writing by sharing it through these platforms. Despite the vitriol & toxicity that can exist on them, it is worth – for now – interacting with them to sustain the connections I’ve built throughout my life, forge authentic new ones, and share a good laugh or two. It’s the least that we all deserve in this world.

– Andrew Hairston

*A very honorable mention to Vine, which existed on my phone for about six weeks in the summer of 2013. Amber’s tutelage also led me to that platform, though it didn’t quite stick. Vine walked so TikTok could run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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