In You Are Your Best Thing, twenty of today’s leading Black authors, educators, artists, and activists share deeply personal accounts of their own experiences with the insidious effects of racism in a culture that advertises, but often fails to deliver, the promise of equal access and equal treatment. Editors Tarana Burke and Brené Brown have compiled an anthology of essays about the complex history that shapes the Black experience. Like Toni Morrison’s book Beloved,  which inspired this anthology’s title, the stories in You Are Your Best Thing unpack the layers of oppression and intergenerational trauma born out of centuries of cruelty and discrimination. The authors’ accounts reveal not only the pervasive and continuous turbulence of slavery’s wake today, but also how the abuse and indignities experienced by their ancestors manifest in the lives of those who have inherited that legacy. This review will first explore the predominant themes expressed by the individual authors in this anthology and then discuss how studying the book can help professors, particularly those who have not lived the Black experience, support Black students.
Many of the authors explore the topic of shame—the unrelenting thief that stifles joy and produces low self-esteem. Prentis Hemphill, an embodiment teacher and essay author, describes shame as a by-product of internalized oppression and “an emotional ritual for the marginalized.” Hemphill explains that feelings of shame are deeply rooted, “fundamental,” and necessary to maintain “conditional belonging.” Shame is the reality of insensitive comments, or perhaps blatantly racist and hateful comments; it is the very real parental obligation to prepare Black teenagers of the dangers of “driving while Black” and explaining why our news stream often shows the senseless murders of people who look like them. Filmmaker, photographer, and essay author Kaia Naadira writes that “shame can feel like a betrayal. A vicious and hateful betrayal that can’t be forgiven or forgotten.” Tanya Denise Fields, author, chef, and founder and executive director of the Black Feminist Project, reveals that shame is both passed down through generations and imposed by lingering suggestions of inferiority. Social worker, therapist, and essay author Deran Young explains that “[i]t makes us feel as though we are suffocating and choking on hundreds of daily messages filled with shame.” Artist, educator, and writer Jessica J. Williams asks, “How could I find my own value and my own worth in a world so determined to convince me of my disposability?” It is easy to understand how the shame persists.
Editors Burke and Brown explain in the book’s preface that shame often arises out of trauma, and many of the authors describe a trauma that did not end when slavery ceased as a legal institution; rather, the enduring curse of slavery continues in the form of racism that can be overt and insidious or invisible and overlooked. The authors chronicle a trauma that has spanned generations and that does not permit its sufferers to heal because the trauma will not surrender. Hemphill’s essay identifies the trauma experiences as “constant and collective,” sharing that many do not have the time or the resources to engage the healing process. Young reveals that the focus on trying to survive does not leave space for vulnerability or addressing emotional trauma. Journalist, screenwriter, and anthology author Keah Brown reveals in her essay that the shame “hangs around like all bad habits do, thriving on its familiarity, allowed to remain because we are either too tired or too jaded to think we can survive without it.” When the grief—or the trauma that produces it—“has not been allowed or honored,” Hemphill cautions, then the grief is “silenced.” A system that has made a practice of denying Black trauma and its own role in creating it does not make space for healing. Healing is a privilege, a luxury. In Morrison’s Beloved, she describes this type of turbulent, unhealed, intergenerational psychological trauma as a “rememory”—a traumatic incident or experience that is told and retold in one’s memories even as the conscious mind tries to block its existence.
Readers of this anthology will learn that grief, “silenced and unacknowledged,” can produce rage and emotional paralysis. Young’s essay explains that grief causes those living with it to erect armor to protect themselves from daily microaggressions and indignities. Laverne Cox, an actress, film producer, and equal rights activist, confesses in her essay that she does not “know how to leave [her] front door and not armor up.” Educator, storyteller, and anthology author Tracey-Michae’l Lewis Giggetts writes about the effect of systemic oppression on Black women in particular and how it causes many “to grow steely-hearted gills and adapt.” Similarly, Williams’ essay cautions that “to achieve, you have to become adept at assimilating,” sacrificing one’s sense of self to conform to another culture’s expectations. Williams laments the irony of how finding worth in her professional accomplishments also made her feel complicit in societal elitism and oppression.
Author, speaker, and media producer Austin Channing Brown describes in her essay the burden of existing within a framework of racism as a “silent stalker” ready to steal joy at any time. This sense of foreboding, she writes, lurks undeterred; it stands prepared to dismantle joy as insurance against being unprepared for disappointment or tragedy. Yet there are pieces of our humanity that should be free for everyone—“[j]oy, happiness, health, safety, love, and abundant community” should be available, without reservation, to all. “Imagine,” challenges Fields, “if we lived in a world in which this narrative was the one instilled in us instead of the capitalist, anti-Black one that roots us in lack, shame, guilt, and insecurity.”
As educators, law school professors play a role in how students imagine themselves and their futures, and this anthology can help professors who have not lived the Black experience understand the complicated historical, social, and political landscape that shapes this generation of students. Many students come to law school searching for ways to stand up against the injustices they see in our society. Recent social justice protests, Hemphill’s essay teaches, reflect “the convergence and expression of grief that spans generations” and represent “the practice of healing shame.” First-year legal writing professors, in particular, work to help students find their voices and develop the skills to think and write as advocates. We have the privilege of teaching the power of language and helping students discover the same strengths that this anthology teaches: that students have “the right to speak” and “the right to be heard.”
Legal writing professors engaging with this anthology can learn from equity consultant, executive coach, and essay author Aiko Bethea, who explains that “[b]reaking down power and privilege by acquiring language and recognizing shared narratives enables us to see and name inequity and shame.” Similarly, Brown advises in her essay that “talking about our experiences is how we move forward.” Many legal writing professors take on a responsibility to cultivate a classroom environment where students learn not only the technical skills of an effective and persuasive advocate, but where they develop an appreciation for differences in life experiences and points of view. In doing so, we can strive to mitigate the often explicit or implicit discriminatory treatment or environmental forces that perpetuate racial oppression in law school classrooms and the legal profession. This anthology’s varied voices and specific, moving examples will aid legal writing professors in this work.
On an individual level, legal writing professors have the ability and the obligation to support Black students who may come to law school managing obstacles that many of their white classmates do not. Through this anthology, readers can learn more about these obstacles and Black students’ frequent lack of recognition in higher education. Readers will learn about the struggle to succeed in the face of circumstantial challenges that have traditionally led to higher attrition rates among students of color. This is important for all professors, of course, but first-year professors are uniquely positioned to stand in the gap for students who struggle to adapt to law school. Doing so could be as simple as ensuring that Black students feel seen. Williams’ essay explains that the “white world of higher education was not designed to acknowledge [her]” or people who look like her. She describes the need to be seen and acknowledged in spaces where many people “have only been taught to notice whiteness.” The typically small size of legal writing classes affords professors the privilege of seeing and knowing students—perhaps we know the student who, in addition to a full course load, is pulling night shifts to pay his law school tuition, or the student who is balancing law school with being the primary caregiver to young children, or the student who is dealing with the emotional trauma of being mistreated by a police officer while driving home from the law library. We know these students and can strive to help them feel seen, especially in places where Black students are typically underrepresented.
Students who are burdened by complicated personal experiences or racial history, or both, begin law school on an uneven playing field. First-year professors must recognize the various roadblocks facing many Black students and implement strategies to support them. Our classrooms should be inclusive environments where all students feel a sense of belonging. This sounds obvious, but we need to think beyond overt racism and our traditional understanding of what racism and discriminatory treatment look like. Cultivating an environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all students means identifying and seeking to correct the subtle discriminatory forces that continue to permeate higher education.
Covert discriminatory treatment can take on many forms. Through this anthology, readers can learn from authors who face this discrimination daily. For example, in law schools where Black students are underrepresented, covert discrimination could mean inadvertently placing them in the position of being a “racial token” or spokesperson for their race or ethnicity. Whenever the subject of race or racism enters the conversation, these students are often sought out for their input, not as individuals but as members of a particular race or ethnic group. Bethea recalls in her essay that being the only Black child in a gifted program at a “‘white school’” was like being “drafted into targeted identity groups that often conflate classism, sexism, racism, genderism.” On the other hand, disparate treatment could mean failing to substantively engage and seek input from Black students in the classroom conversation, making some students feel invisible or unvalued. Both scenarios foster marginalization and division.
Prioritizing an inclusive classroom might mean assessing and augmenting curricula to encourage culturally diverse engagement. In a legal writing classroom, that could mean using textbooks published by Black authors and editors or highlighting legal opinions written by Black judges. It could mean facilitating introduction to Black legal professionals in the community. As Williams states in her essay, ignoring color or failing to affirm diversity “intentionally rob[s]” Black people “of opportunities to see the spectrum of who we can become.” It is critical that all students be able to see themselves as members of the bar. Making the legal profession available to all should not require Black students to assimilate to another culture’s expectations. Instead, the legal profession itself must adapt to represent a diverse and inclusive community that recognizes and celebrates differing cultures, viewpoints, and history.
Williams’ essay further describes how predominately white spaces often fail to welcome diversity because American society has “little to no tolerance for experiencing pain” and “we go out of our way to avoid discomfort.” Welcoming diversity could thus mean embracing the hard conversations and thoughtfully engaging racism when it is implicated in classroom discussions. It could mean encouraging students to share their stories and promoting connections that build bridges of understanding. Shawn A. Ginwright, a professor of education and leader in African American youth development, explains in his essay that one way to counter the burdens imposed by “a world that shows [Black people] no love” is “to create an environment of safety and trust” where people feel able to speak their minds.
Finally, this book review would be incomplete without acknowledging the resiliency and strength of community expressed in many of the authors’ essays. Hemphill’s essay explains that Black communities have “survived through a persistent commitment to life, by filling simple lives with big love and a commitment to justice.” This commitment to “embrac[ing] joy” and “rejecting shame,” writes Fields, is founded upon an ability to “curate an abundant community that reminds you of what is on the other side, that loves on you, that pours into you . . . .” Legal writing professors can learn from this anthology that our frequently smaller and more intimate classes provide a forum for community building—a space where students feel seen and heard and learn how to use the power of language to stand against racial injustices. Fittingly, Young’s essay ends with a powerful African proverb: “[i]f you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Burke and Brown’s You Are Your Best Thing shares the Black experience that American culture has largely ignored or inadequately narrated. As the essays demonstrate, the effects of oppression and discrimination, though at times less visible, are still painfully alive. Reading this book has helped me recognize some of the burdens carried by Black students and made me more cognizant of the responsibility we share to support our students. We have “patterns to unlearn” and “wounds to heal”—and that requires all of us. By fostering inclusivity and belonging in our classrooms, thereby giving students the space to discover their voices and engage in meaningful legal expression and dialogue, we can give students the tools to define their own narratives and forge a more level path for those who follow.
You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame, Resilience, and The Black Experience (Tarana Burke & Brené Brown eds., 2021).
You Are Your Best Thing derives its title from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a book that poetically traces the psychological horrors and lingering trauma of slavery in America. “You your best thing,” a former slave tells Morrison’s protagonist, Sethe. Toni Morrison, Beloved 322 (1987). In Beloved, Sethe is so heartbroken and destroyed, both physically and psychologically, by the vicious institution of slavery that she murdered her beloved child—the child she believed to be her “best thing”—to free the child from returning to a life of slavery, which Sethe believed would be, quite literally, a fate worse than death. Id.
Many of the thoughts about classroom inclusivity and promoting diversity and meaningful conversations relating to race and racism in a law school setting may apply generally to many other non-white students as well. But because You Are Your Best Thing speaks to the particular experiences of members of the Black community, this review will not generalize the constructs of racism that exist across multiple axes and will instead focus on the experiences and effects of racism explored in this anthology.
You Are Your Best Thing, supra note 1, at 27, 168-69.
Id. at 44.
Id. at 17, 123.
Id. at 115.
Id. at 23-24, 27 (“I was nurtured in a world that instilled shame in me from the time I was birthed and probably well before.”); id. at 29 (discussing “the overall society that inundates us from birth with the message that certain folks are more deserving and valuable based on their bodies, complexion, race, gender expression, physical and mental capabilities, education levels, and whatever [else] is just arbitrarily made up and pushed into our minds and down our throats”).
Id. at 123, 125 (“Carrying the burden of silence, racial trauma, and shame is exhausting and soul crushing.”).
Id. at 173.
See id. at xv-xviii.
See id. at xxi-xxii.
Id. at 49, 51, 123, 159, 166.
See id. at 43-44, 51.
Id. at 47.
Id. at 43.
See id. at 126-131.
Id. at 80-81.
Id. at 49.
See id. at 47-48; see also id. at 52 (“[P]ain disproportionately felt, without space for respite or relief, without accountability or acknowledgment, creates a thing that festers.”).
Morrison, supra note 2, at 43.
You Are Your Best Thing, supra note 1, at 49; see also id. at 109 (“I can do all things through spite which strengthens me,” said Naadira, explaining how they “clung to spite.”).
Id. at 102.
Id. at 12; see also id. at 180, 182, 186 (author Aiko Bethea recalling that “[a]t Smith College, in a sea of whiteness telling me how wrong I was, sometimes it was overt, but usually it was a thousand (micro)aggressions a minute”).
Id. at 164.
Id. at 58.
Id. at 177-78.
Id. at 177.
Id. at 15.
Id. at 14-15.
Id. at 25.
Id. at 25.
Id. at 49.
Id. at 168.
Id. at 184.
Id. at 84.
True diversity in the legal profession has a long way to go. As of 2020, eighty-six percent of lawyers were non-Latinx white people. Am. Bar Ass’n, ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 33 (2021), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2021/0721/polp.pdf [https://perma.cc/TGA7-9PPZ]. The number of lawyers who are men and women of color has grown only three percent in the last decade, from just over eleven percent in 2010 to just over fourteen percent in 2020. Id. The number of Black and Latinx lawyers together make up only ten percent of lawyers nationally. Id.
Kylie Thomas & Tiffane Cochran, ABA Data Reveals Minority Students Are Disproportionately Represented in Attrition Figures, AccessLex.org (Sept. 18, 2018), http://accesslex.org/xblog/aba-data-reveals-minority-students-are-disproportionately-represented-in-attrition-figures [https://perma.cc/3ZMT-TDAQ].
You Are Your Best Thing, supra note 1, at 174.
See Jonathan Feingold & Doug Souza, Measuring the Racial Unevenness of Law School, 15 Berkely J. Afr.-Am. L. & Pol’y 71, 84, 86 (2013).
Id. at 86.
You Are Your Best Thing, supra note 1, at 179-80.
Feingold & Souza, supra note 42, at 86.
You Are Your Best Thing, supra note 1, at 173.
Id. at 176.
Id. at 106.
Id. at 100.
Id. at 102.
Id. at 51.
Id. at 29-30.
Id. at 131 (emphasis in original).
Id. at 163.
See id. at 52.
See id. at 48-49.
See id. at 84.