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'Representing The Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer': A Review

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Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer by Kenneth W. Mack ($35, Harvard University Press) is a look at the constructed narrative of the African American lawyer in the formation of civil rights in the USA.

As the book states,

Who was the representative Negro? It was the black person who crossed racial lines, and often shook up the expectations of a segregated society. It was an African American whose formative experience with race came in an encounter with segregated public space. It was also --- on many occasions --- a black person who was as unlike the rest of his race as possible. A segregated society often demanded that representative Negroes be racially ambiguous. But that society also demanded more. It required that they be authentic representatives of those who would never be allowed into Harvard, or the Aldine Theatre, or the Supreme Court's hallowed space. It was an experience fraught with deeply conflicted emotions and desires.

Although it's certainly readable, this is first and foremost an academic text -- there is little contextual description of relative societies of each figure profiled, as well as little examination of how those who broke new ground in desegregating the legal profession were echoed - or otherwise - by black people on the fringes of other white-dominated, white collar worlds such as politics, law enforcement or finance.

This is a text about nuance, primarily serving as important footnotes to the established history, rather than rethinking it altogether. It is, then, a book for those seeking new angles on what they consider already-familiar material, rather than a general-interest text.

The book's structure is chronological, with snappy biographies of a handful of figures (their lives outside of their profession are summarized in a couple of paragraphs) followed by detailed descriptions of court cases and their aftermath.

It's here that the book enters its most engaging territory, describing how the courtroom became both a public space, and one whose norms were outside of those beyond its doors. The rules of the court came above the social expectations of race and class, the expectation that a barrister would be treated with respect leading to almost surreal scenes where white bigots called black men "Sir", and were forced to answer their questions, while across the street they would not be allowed to sit at the same lunch counter.

And yet, Mack demonstrates that these figures were more complicated than the simplified narratives people to which wanted them to be ascribed. These were supposed to be "representations" of a people or a race, yet ones who dressed and performed as white men in a white-dominated space.

These issues were further complicated by the rise of black female lawyers, particularly Jane Brolin and Sadie Alexander, who fought for civil rights based on gender as well as race (so-called Jane Crow to accompany Jim Crow), as well as by the rise of Communism as a potential alternative to the existing hegemony, coinciding with various battles around the leadership of the rising NAACP.

In short, the courtroom was not just a place of privilege determined by skin color, but also dominated by the numerous facets that informed -- and continue to inform -- the American ruling class. Any oversimplified rags-to-riches, struggle-to-victory tale needs to be understood in those terms.

This group of pioneering lawyers didn't just help break boundaries, but also, as Mack so adeptly shows, their own stories do not fit the easy narratives we may expect from our civil rights leaders.

As the book puts it,

They practiced in a world where blacks and whites seemed to want them to be both like and unlike the rest of their race.

It was in one way a hopeless task, yet these men and women achieved important victories whose impact continues to resonate. Anyone interested in the minutiae of how that came about, in various courtrooms across the country over the past 120 or so years, will most certainly enjoy this work.