Volume 74, Number 31 | December 08 - 14, 2004


MacArthur-winning professor/columnist ‘opens house’

By Ed Gold

She was trying to put an ink cartridge into her printer when the phone rang. She picked it up with her inky hands and the voice on the other end gave her the good news.

That’s how Professor Patricia Williams, sitting in her Greenwich Village apartment, learned she had been named a MacArthur Fellow, a so-called “genius” award you can’t apply for, but which provides you with a half million dollars over five years, no strings attached.

Williams teaches at Columbia University Law School, has written several well-received books, is a columnist for The Nation and lectures extensively. One of 25 recipients in 2000, she was chosen, the MacArthur Foundation said, because of her unique ability to combine “personal narrative, critical and literary theory, traditional legal doctrine and empirical and sociological research.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard, himself no intellectual slouch, has dubbed her “one of our great theorists of race and law.”

Before Columbia, she had practiced law at the Center of Law and Poverty on the West Coast, served in the city attorney’s office in Los Angeles, and taught law at Golden Gate College, City University in New York and University of Wisconsin.

She has taken a chunk of her $500,000 grant and has spent several years researching and writing a book, just published, which is part autobiography, part history, part fierce advocacy and part serious social commentary, sprinkled with sadness, amiability, flights of fancy and much good humor.

Called “Open House,” it explores the many “rooms” in her mind, including her attitude about family, friends, personal talents, good and bad causes and situations that irritate, to name a few.

But an important strand that runs through her work is the continuing struggle to create a humane and just society in the face of seemingly historically intractable barriers to racial and gender equality.

The family tree for Williams begins with her great-great-grandmother, who was impregnated by her master when she was 11. The slave owner, Williams notes ironically, was a lawyer so those genes must still be operating.

Family is important to the MacArthur scholar. In fact she inherited her apartment in the mid-’80s from an aunt, Marguerite, who was also her godmother. Her father was a technical editor who grew up in Georgia at a time when there was a lynching in the state every week. Her parents wound up in Boston, where her mother was a cellist with the Boston Civic Symphony. Another aunt, Muriel, graduated from Radcliffe at 19, got involved with a Catholic cult, later became a nun and writes books about saints.
Perhaps her most colorful relative was her great aunt Mary, whose career may actually have started in an outhouse. Before Scott tissues, there were newspapers and magazines. Mary came across an ad from a school in Boston looking for students. She was light-skinned and creative, passed herself off as an Indian princess and was accepted. After a career as an actress she later became a successful teacher in early childhood development.

Williams has remained single, but is very much a mother, having adopted Peter, now 12, big for his age and very precocious. He once asked his mother: “Was I genetically engine-eared when you got me?”

Williams’ response: “Your ears were always perfect little engines.”

There was also a dark period when Peter became frighteningly ill and his mother feared for his life, as well as recognizing her own mortality. Peter pulled through and has been a continual delight, even when his mother is watching him, in one of his playful moods, belching out the alphabet backwards!

She has had her bumps educationally and in particular during her law school days at Harvard, where affirmative action helped her get in.

She had the double hurdle of race and gender. Blacks were “endured,” she says, but made to feel they were taking spaces that belonged to white candidates. On the sex issue, she recalls the Harvard Law School dean some years earlier telling a female student she had prevented a more qualified male from attending. The dean was addressing Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And then there was her trip to England in 1997 to do some BBC broadcasts. The London Daily Mail considered her a dangerous invader. The paper called her “a militant black feminist of slave stock” who “hates all white people and doesn’t believe in the family.” She rode with a London cabbie who had seen the story and told her “you must be Irish.”

Sometimes the slights have been more subtle. She hears about black students in school who are accused by their teachers of lying when they talk about their relatives’ achievements. She hears about black mothers taking their children to middle-class schools and being asked by teachers whose children they brought to school. She is upset by what she sees as an economic “white edge” when white families can hire tutors for as much as “$100 an hour to teach poetry.” She is told Condeleezza Rice went into a fine jewelry store where she was only shown costume jewelry.

The professor also has her lighter moments. A friend who is always looking for perfection checks out the Williams’ home. She finds a flaw: her dishes don’t match. Philosophically, Williams concludes: “I enjoy a very fortunate life notwithstanding the tragedy of my mismatched dishes.”

She is not as sanguine about aggressive right-wingers. At a social gathering, one protagonist was “speed-talking right on past the stop signs of ordinary conversational exchange.” She concluded it had become a “dinner from hell,” and left before the coffee was served.

She comments in some detail on many of the national issues of particular interest to her, including human cloning, media coverage, loss of privacy, poverty and stereotyping.

On cloning, she sees it as “a conceit of immortality, a world full of me’s everlasting.” She is taken aback by a student who tells her: “I’m putting myself through school by selling my eggs. I’m being harvested next week.” Williams speculates: Would $50,000 pay for “tall, blue-eyed athletic co-eds with SATs of at least 1400?”

On a personal note, she is especially proud of an accomplishment at 40-plus that proved she had inherited the family’s musical genes. Taking up the piano seriously, she has become “much less dreadful than anyone expected.” Piano playing has also led to lifestyle modifications to keep her in good shape. She drinks green tea, goes to yoga classs, lifts small weights and contemplates running a 5K race. Her ultimate goal: “Get Rachmaninoff a-spinning in his grave.”

How does she see herself?: “As a soft-spoken 50-something mush of a minority, deferential but strong” with “a tendency to collapse under rightist pressure” but compensating by writing “brave leftist articles for The Nation.” And on lecturing, she suggests “a lectern-clutching delivery.” She probably is too self-effacing. More likely she can be described as a strong female fist in a black velvet glove.

She dreams of a day when no one will say “the first black” whatever, and when all Americans will be part of one society. She closes with a hope for the future: “A laying down of arms. A laying on of hands. A long cool rain of forgiveness.” Amen.

“Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons and the Search for a Room of My Own,” 255 pp., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.

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