Friday, 23 October 2015 15:40

Another Black Woman

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Another Black Woman

Winkfield F. Twyman Jr.

W. F. Twyman, Jr. is a former law professor who has written about race and relationships. He is a Harvard Law School graduate. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

She has two young children out of wedlock by different fathers. She lives in a rental house with a man whose wages are garnished to support a child by another woman. The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program provides health care for her children. And she's going to need those benefits because her three-year-old and one-year-old have been diagnosed with lead-based paint poisoning. She has a good heart but few other assets. At the age of thirty-eight she has no career, just a series of dead-end jobs that have ranged from saleslady at the mall and concession work at the local drive-in to toll booth attendant, clerical work at a graveyard, and factory work in a condom plant. She's between jobs now, so money is tight which explains why the phone was cut off last week. She must move out of the house to stop the slow leaden death of her children's minds. But she has no money, her father doesn't want to take her into his small three-bedroom house, and the live-in man doesn't want to live under her father's roof.

And I watch this drama play out from 3,000 miles away. My niece and nephew deserve better.

How did my sister reach this point? What happened along the way?

We have the same parents and grandparents. We grew up in the same homes, attended the same grade schools, faced the same obstacles. As youngsters, we knew the same people--Linda Kay Lewis across the street, the Johnsons next door, and the Edwards family in the brick house at the end of Jean Drive. Sundays meant service at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church on Terminal Avenue and after church visits with grandma.

As a writer, I could paint my life in bold contrast to my sister's. I grabbed opportunity at every turn, graduating from the University of Virginia with high honors and Harvard Law School, a stint at a Park Avenue law firm, service on Capitol Hill as a staffer, a life of the mind as a law professor, my current gig as a government litigator. That I married a Yalie from an Old Family and live minutes from the ocean in San Diego makes for a Hollywood story of poor boy makes good. But my real life is more of a muddle--disaffection with the practice of law, mediocre grades in law school, a lost teaching career, failed bar exams. The truth is more complex than golden son, loser daughter.

Carl Jung, a famous Swiss psychiatrist, proposed in the 1920s that definable psychological types could be found among his patients. A template governed the range of reactions to the outside world. For example, people could tend to be more introverted or extroverted. Introversion and extroversion stood at opposite ends of a continuum. Another spectrum ran from extreme intuition to extreme sensing. Possibility energized intuitives. Concrete facts and reality moved sensing types.

Growing up on Jean Drive, I felt a constant suffocation, a sense that life offered far more than what I saw and knew. Because I was smart, I earned good grades in school. My mom had had the foresight to move us out to Chesterfield County where the public schools were among the best in Virginia. My father did not have a clue. I read all the time, a habit that further expanded my mental horizons. I cannot recall my sister reading for fun as a youngster. Nor do I recall her having lofty ambitions and aspirations. There may have been three college graduates on my all-black street, all school teachers and alumni of black schools.

If I had taken my life cues from my surroundings, I would be cleaning floors at the local elementary school. My mom often remarked that my father could teach me nothing about the larger world, save how to get a job slinging a mop. My mom did not mince words.

And this insight explains how Mrs. and Mr. Twyman could raise a Harvard Law School graduate and an unwed mother on welfare under the same roof. The surface answer would say I was ambitious and my sister was not. The easy answer would say I was gifted and my sister was dull-minded. Others might argue I made good choices in life. My sister made poor choices.

The deeper answer lies in Jung.

My introversion and intuition saved me.

I lived in the inner world of ideas. I read a book a day in junior high school to better understand the world. I learned about social class and how the powerful gained power. I read and re-read books on the Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt, and social stratification. That I attended a middle-class, republican school only whetted my appetite for the larger world beyond Jean Drive and Chester. When it came time to attend college, my Aunt Charlotte took me aside one Sunday at church and encouraged me to attend the local community college. She meant well but it was all she knew. I knew better because of my reading and because of my peer aspirations in school. My academic peers were talking about Princeton, William and Mary, and the University of Virginia, not John Tyler Community College. Had I taken my cues from family, my life would have been very different.

My father opposed my attending the University of Virginia. He felt I should attend a good black school like Virginia State College.

When it came time to apply to law school, my father opposed Harvard Law School. He urged me to "be average" and go to Howard Law School. I did not relent. I took my cues from within.

I knew possibility even while I lived in a blue-collar world. That I might have appeared strange to my neighbors did not matter. Some applauded my successes. Others were jealous. And still others believed that a janitor's son had no right attending Harvard Law School. It wasn't right. It was unnatural. I could not have cared less. If there were scholarships and loans available, I would use them to reach a better place. It is easy to forget the restrictions of the old life. I did not attend a movie until I was in college. I never flew on an airplane until I visited Harvard Law School as an admitted student. I had not been west of Roanoke, Virginia, until law school.

While introversion and intuition saved me, extroversion and sensing ensnared my sister. She took her cues from the outer world of family and neighbors. She chose friends who did not think out of the box. And to get along, she went along. She lacked the sense of possibility that could have uplifted the veil of working class ignorance about a lettered life. I often urged her to think about college and to take difficult classes. But I was one person in a sea of voices content to live an unambitious life. My father never said it was a sin to be ambitious but by his actions he provided a model that my sister followed.

But the same introversion and intuition that shielded me from the street left me vulnerable and ill-equipped for the larger world of law practice. The practice of law in major law firms is about client development and developing relationships with constituencies. I have never felt the need to grease social relationships. And so my personality limited my ascent in the legal profession. The law requires a fact-retentiveness and attention to detail that are anathema to my intuitive soul. I am prone to mistakes of fact, a lethal handicap in my profession.

And so my personality lifted me up into the legal class while guaranteeing my discontent in my chosen profession. Had my sister grown up in an upper-middle class setting and received constructive signals from family and friends, she would probably have become a more satisfied professional than her lawyer brother. But her birth into the segregated black world of the working class sealed her extroverted sensing fate.

Much research needs to be done on the lever of temperament and black success. Do African-American introverts excel at a disproportionate rate compared to black extroverts? If so, does this personality dimension explain the high numbers of black professional women compared to men? Women tend to be more introverted and intuitive than men, so this bias may be shielding women from the injuries of segregated black life. Can a knowledge of temperament save black futures from self-destruction?

I do not know the answers.

What I do know is that my sister's life is now a stereotype. And while I plan for the future, she takes life one crisis at a time.

Postscript: Yesterday, my sister fought with her man. He said, "You're just like a person in the projects." Blind to any responsibility for his one-year-old son, the man left my sister for good. And as he left, he left my three-year-old niece screaming and crying in the driveway for the only father she's ever known. My sister and her two children are now living with my 74-year-old father and his second wife in a three-bedroom house. *

"No written law has ever been more binding than unwritten custom supported by popular opinion." --Carrie Chapman Catt

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