A woman with a West African name -– one that translates to “lovely one” -– who wears sister locs in homage to her African roots. Whose parents attended North Carolina Central University, an institution founded by one of the wealthiest Black folks in the U.S. in the early 1900s during the height of Durham, N.C.’s Black Wall Street reign of Black prosperity, and Tuskegee University, which was built brick by brick by the formerly enslaved men and women who made up the Institute’s first class led by the genius of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Whose name image and lineage and even her very appearance are reminders of the spirit of excellence and brilliance of a people who were largely stripped of our identities and heritage upon arrival on this continent over 400 years ago. Who is one of the most qualified justices in history – and she’s ours.
The gravity of this moment and significance of her selection are not lost on me.
But I’m tired. Tired of celebrating “firsts” in 2022. Tired of watching our women torn down by people who aren’t even qualified to call their names, let alone interrogate them. We watched her gracefully handle all of the absurd questions lodged her way during the confirmation hearings, and tear up at U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s vocal and public affirmation that she deserved to be in that seat, that she belonged there. As if she should have needed that reminder, given her qualifications — especially after one of the least qualified justices in history, Amy Coney Barrett, was confirmed easily right before her, and a serial rapist, Brett Kavanuagh, before Barrett.
With all of her qualifications — and many of the Republican senators recited them as they still voted no on her confirmation — her right to be there still had to be defended.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we teach Black children that they have to be twice as good and work thrice as hard to get to these tables, tables where men who made it on the strength of their daddy’s names, names born of their grandfathers who built their fortunes on the backs of enslaved men and women question will eventually question our children’s audacity to believe they belong. I think about how every single time I get to a table I’ve worked hard to be at — from U.S. Department of Education convenings to so many forums and lyceum series on college and university campuses where I’ve spoken on panels to even the White House — I’ve felt, as First Lady Michelle Obama once expressed, “these guys really aren’t even that smart.”
I think about how systemic racism has plucked the best of best from our communities and planted us in theirs in the name of integration — and how our conditioning trained us to believe those were the places we wanted to be. Places where we’d have to defend not only our right to exist, but our humanity. How we believed we had an increased chance of survival if we could just earn the privilege to be in the house. How we had to conform to every expectation and projection of morality dictated by a society that was completely devoid of morality. How Justice Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson tearfully apologized to her daughters for not always getting the balance between being their mother and working hard “right.” How we all sacrifice ourselves and our families constantly to do what we need to do to be seen as acceptable and worthy to sit at tables that don’t even want us there and certainly won’t make room for the chairs we bring along ourselves without a fight.
I wish I had a conclusion to all of these thoughts, but I don’t. The reality is, we still live in a system dictated by white supremacy, and it is probably true that if we are to have any chance of dismantling it, we probably have to continue to play within it and work to tear it down from the inside. I’ve always said it’s easier to burn a house down from inside the house than outside. And the truth is, somebody’s got to be first, and I’m so glad it’s Justice Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson.
But I’m still tired, and even what should be a joyous celebration for me, feels like another exhausting example of how far we still have to go.