IOWA CITY, Iowa – Amazing what you can find in Iowa.
From July 6 – July 12, nearly 120 Black women law faculty from across the nation descended upon Iowa City, Iowa to attend the 10th Annual Commemorative Lutie A. Lytle Black Women Law Faculty Workshop at the University of Iowa College of Law.
The faculty who attended the workshop constitute almost a third of the Black women who serve as law school faculty, administrators and librarians in the United States. According to 2013 American Bar Association’s (ABA) statistics, Black women comprise only 9.9 percent of law school faculty, administrators and librarians.
The small percentage of Black women in the legal academy suggests that not much has changed since the days of Lutie A. Lytle, for whom the workshop is named. Lytle became the first female law professor in the nation, and likely the world, when she joined the faculty at Central Tennessee College of Law in 1897. She was the daughter of a former slave, earned her law degree in the late 1800s, became the first Black woman to become a member of the Kansas bar, and was bold enough to try and practice law before women were granted the right to vote.
According to this year’s conference host, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, the founder of the event and the Charles M. and Marion J. Kierscht Professor of Law at the University of Iowa, Lytle herself “could not have imagined 125 Black women law faculty gathering in her name in 2016.” After all, Lytle began teaching courses at a time when just the idea of a Black female lawyer astonished people.
According to Adrien Wing, associate dean and the Bessie Dutton Murray Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law, this 2016 gathering of Black women law faculty is all the more significant and extraordinary when we consider the fact that “there are only 4 percent Black lawyers (nationally), yet 40 percent of the people in prison are Black.” Wing welcomed the workshop attendees by detailing both the state of Iowa’s and the University of Iowa’s history of racial firsts as well as the university’s longstanding commitment to diversity.
In light of recent volatile and too often violent encounters between Black citizens and our country’s police departments and justice systems, the role of Black lawyers today cannot be understated. These Black women law faculty carry on Lytle’s tradition in the face of contemporary odds that include lack of diversity in law faculty nationwide, a decline in the numbers of Black students admitted to law school, the rising costs of law school tuition, and the gap between starting pay and the debt incurred to complete a law school education. Also, trying to teach and interpret the law through a racial justice lens and in front of an increasingly non-receptive, and sometimes hostile, group of students is a very tricky proposition in these times.
Most of the Black women participants attend the workshop because of the sense of community and support they derive from it. Top law schools such as Stanford Law School still have only one Black female law professor. Being what Rachel Moran, a professor, calls “a society of one” can make law school hallways an isolating place for Black female academics. To this day, Stanford Law School has never had a tenured Black woman on its faculty, but Stanford is hardly remarkable in this regard. Just this year, the first Black female law professor was tenured at Southern Methodist University Dedman College of Law. Other women at the workshop can lay claim to being the first Black women to serve on their law faculties as well as the first to receive tenure.
The workshop’s program centers on providing its participants with the opportunity to write in a collective environment, prepare for publication in law journals, practice job talks, map strategies for dealing with the isolation of being “the only one” at many law schools, and network, network, network.
In the isolating contexts of many law schools, today’s Black female law professors must contend with micro-aggressive behavior from students and colleagues. They also must learn to navigate the academy with savvy and craft a respected public voice, since too often they are called upon to explain the law or comment on the conflicts between police, the legal system, and Black citizens and many other issues of public concern.
Given how Black women law faculty must confront such harried academic and social spaces on a daily basis, the Lutie A. Lytle Workshop has become a place of refuge and respite, a sanctuary filled with like-spirited Black women who understand why each of them is “tired of being sick and tired,” as Fannie Lou Hammer used to say.
At the workshop, Black women law faculty engage in community building, networking, and professional development as they learn they are not alone. At Lutie A. Lytle, they receive support, encouragement, nurturing, inspiration, and time devoted to incubating ideas and writing rigorously while they embrace Lytle’s own words, “Quote me, I will be heard.”
And, the success of the workshop is more than evident. In the 10 years since the first workshop in 2007, the collective productivity of this group of fierce women has culminated in 652 law review articles, 72 book chapters, and 34 books.
I personally found the group to be an eager and receptive audience to my keynote presentation on the Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive, which is being launched in collaboration with the Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) Department of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst. The McClaurin Black Feminist Archive will offer a home for the papers of many Black female academics, helping to ensure that their important contributions – their words – will not be lost, forgotten or unquoted. After my talk, many Lytle workshop participants commented that they would now look at their own papers and correspondence with a renewed sense of importance, commitment, and understanding of the need to preserve.
My collaborator, Robert Cox, director of SCUA at the UMass Amherst Du Bois Library, reminds us that “bringing the writings of Black feminists into the conversation has transformative potential not just for academic research, but for the lives of women and men across the globe facing the challenges of life in the 21st century.”
The Lutie A. Lytle Workshop, (www.law.uiowa.edu/tenth-annual-lutie-lytle-black-women-law-faculty-writing-workshop) has proven its transformative value for the women who attend and write their vision and lives. What I learned from these powerful women during the workshop is that they are determined “to be heard” through their writings, and now to have their contributions preserved in archives.
Irma McClaurin is an award winning syndicated columnist. In 2015, she received the Black Press of America’s Emory O. Jackson Column Writing Award from the NNPA. She is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News, an activist anthropologist, writer, motivational speaker, champion of diversity and inclusiveness leadership and founder of the Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive at UMass Amherst. Find her at www.irmamcclaurin.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.