Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University, published these words twenty-five years ago in her renowned essay on slavery, race, gender, and rights called “On Being the Object of Property“:
There are moments in my life when I feel as though a part of me is missing. There are days when I feel so invisible that I can’t remember what day of the week it is, when I feel so manipulated that I can’t remember my own name, when I feel so lost and angry that I can’t speak a civil word to the people who love me best. Those are the times when I catch sight of my reflection in stores windows and am surprised to see a whole person looking back.
In a symposium last week at Columbia Law School that celebrated her continued work in law, critical race theory, and intersectional feminism, she recalled the climate in which she wrote this reflection on the dispossession of black people in general and black women in particular.
She had graduated from Harvard Law School in 1975 and felt, in her words, “lonely and miserable” in the legal profession. “Out of a class of 536, there were 81 women,” she wrote in The New Yorker of her university experience, “including ten black women” such as herself. She told the audience at the symposium that she had wanted to quit law school, but Derrick Bell, the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, convinced her otherwise. Still, after five years as a trial lawyer and seven years as a professor in this “exclusively male preserve,” she was skeptical about whether the legal profession was for her. So having previously written about refinancing and consent forms, she decided in 1987 to write about law by focusing on her personal experience:
I, like so many blacks, have been trying to pin myself down in history, place myself in the stream of time as significant, evolved, present in the past, continuing into the future. To be without documentation is…too dangerously malleable in the hands of those who would rewrite not merely the past but my future as well. So I have been picking through the ruins for my roots.
This became “On Being the Object of Property,” an essay that explores not only her great-great grandmother’s history as an eleven-year-old sold into slavery but also other tales of injustice: the forced sterilization of women of color, her dark-skinned godmother Marjorie who was given away by her mother, and an eleven-year-old mauling victim at the Brooklyn Zoo. Each story was an urgent case study that showcased how easily—and in some cases violently—the law and its trustees not only robbed people of color of their rights but also perpetuated an image of people of color as ciphers who lacked self-determination.
With the encouragement of her mentors Bell, Sacvan Bercovitch, and others, she published “On Being the Object of Property,” which Harvard University Press then requested in book form and became 1992’s The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Not only did these texts give voice to marginalized black women at a time when so many of them were excluded from academic discourse, Williams’s works created a new interdisciplinary genre that examined race, gender, class, and the law through a highly personal prism.
“On Being the Object of Property” is now taught widely in universities’ English, African American studies, feminist, and law courses. Anita Hill said at the event, “There’s a real generosity in Pat’s writing that opens you to her thinking and that allows you to think along with her…I think that’s what happens when readers read. They’re able, then, to question their own way of looking at an issue because there’s so much honesty in Pat’s questioning.” An audience member pointed out that the essay made her as a woman of color feel as if she was no longer alone.
Williams said of Alchemy, “Weirdly enough, that book that I wrote as an escape hatch from the legal profession ended up drawing me back into it as I became both hailed and assailed for being genre busting and quirky.” In fact, the essay and its ensuing book propelled Williams’s academic career. After Alchemy, she wrote The Rooster’s Egg, Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, and Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and The Search for a Room of My Own. She still teaches law at Columbia Law School and writes the Diary of a Mad Law Professor column for The Nation.
But Williams said she owes her success to her peers whose ideas and inquiries over the years helped strengthen her own: “Nothing I have ever written could have been written without that colloquy—without the reading groups that have met and continue to meet in rotating living rooms, the critical legal study retreats in the early years, the feminist legal theory workshops, the political victories, the political losses, the personal toll that Lani [Guinier] and Anita [Hill] experienced.”
Someone in the audience asked Williams how, in exploring the disenfranchisement of people of color in America, she is able to be so vulnerable in her writing. She responded, “I don’t think I would have been as vulnerable if I had known how hard it was. And by the time I realized how hard it was, I was lucky enough to have found myself among a community of people and groups who made me appreciate that the struggle was not just about me.”