Black History Month, to me as an African-American, is a time for reflection on and celebration of past accomplishments (and planning for future achievements) of our community. I have heard more than one person comment that February 2018 was “the blackest Black History Month ever” thanks in significant part to the unveiling of the official portraits of the first U.S. Black President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, and the release of the record-shattering movie, “Black Panther.”
I watched both of these historic events with awe, wonder and great pride. My young son has as well, and that brings me to the topic of this article: The importance of Black presidents, Black Panther and Black GCs.
I have heard some grumbling (on social media and elsewhere) that too much is made of some of these “firsts.” The Obamas entering the White House did not end racism. “Black Panther” being so successful will not end any of society’s ills. While true on their face, these sentiments overlook the underlying, long-term value and impact of hope and inspiration. Having hope and inspiration are the beginning of creating change. And seeing Black Presidents and movies like “Black Panther” — seeing people who look like you accomplish great things when most of what you see around you indicates that people like you cannot accomplish great things — inspires hope and plants the seeds for real change in our society, one observer/viewer at a time. Representation matters.
According to an anecdote told by Nichelle Nichols in Trekkies (1997), a young Whoopi Goldberg was watching Star Trek and upon seeing Ms. Nichols’s character, Uhura, exclaimed, “Momma! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!” This spawned lifelong fandom of Star Trek for Goldberg, who would eventually ask for and receive a recurring guest-starring role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Nichols has also shared that she had planned to leave the show after the first season — only to change her mind when Martin Luther King Jr. told her what an impact she was having. Not only did Ms. Nichols remain on the show, she went on to have a significant role at NASA, including recruiting Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut. Representation matters.
Growing up, I remember watching actress Phylicia Rashad portray Claire Huxtable on TV’s “The Cosby Show.” I am the first person in my family to finish college. I didn’t know any lawyers growing up, had never met or seen any. So it was an incredibly impactful experience for me to see an African-American female lawyer on television every week. I asked my mom if it was real, and she said that I could be anything I wanted to be. Seeing and hearing this was the beginning of my realizing what I wanted for my own life and beginning to work toward it. Representation matters.
Now I am an attorney (no longer practicing) and a legal recruiter. It’s not a TV-perfect life, but it is real. And I am very well aware of the opportunity that I have every day to inspire others through the example of my own (albeit imperfect) life and career and through the inspiration provided to and by the black attorneys I advise and am involved in placing.
As a legal recruiter with Major, Lindsey & Africa since 2010, I have had the privilege of counseling and assisting in the placement of many Black General Counsel (as well as other black in-house counsel in non-GC positions and law firm lawyers). Placing Black GCs is obviously good for both the GCs and for me and MLA from a financial/career advancement standpoint. But there’s more: Representation matters.
As with the Obamas, “Black Panther,” Uhura, and Claire Huxtable, every time a Black GC attains that position, someone who looks like them is watching and being inspired. Some child, some law student, some lawyer at various stages along that path is seeing that success and thinking “If (s)he can do it, so can I!” Reading an article about that Black GC, seeing him/her speak on a panel or receive an award, meeting him/her in person, provides hope and inspiration. It can very well be the beginning of leading that person down his or her own path to success. Representation matters.
I talk a lot with the Black GCs I know about their career development and the importance of their being visible in the community – not just for the sake of their own personal brands and success but to inspire others. I spoke recently with one of my placed candidates, LaTanya Langley, Vice President & General Counsel, Group Stationery, Latin America, Middle East, Africa & Anti-Corruption Compliance Officer at BIC International, about this topic:
What does being a Black GC in America today mean to you?
Being a General Counsel in America today means that I have the opportunity to use my unique skill sets, talents, experiences and strategic viewpoints to help ensure the success of my company. Being a Black GC also provides me the distinct privilege to promote diversity of thought, perspective, and celebrate and leverage differences.
What are the particular challenges and opportunities?
“Black Panther” challenges the pervasive idea that heroes can only be white and male (just as Barack Obama challenged the idea that Presidents can only be white). Black GCs have the challenge of not only exhibiting that we have the standard, traditional skills to be key assets to our companies, but we also have unique challenges to build familiarity, trust and disrupt stereotypes and biases. These additional hurdles in the playing field require Black GCs to be superheroes with acute senses, agility, enhanced strength, speed and flexibility in a complex business world and legal environment.
What advice would you give to new Black GCs and to Black aspiring GCs?
Look in the mirror every day and see in your reflection Black Excellence. It is your history, legacy and success barometer. Own it.
Lt. Uhura showed us that we could boldly go! Barack Obama challenged us to be the change we want to see in this world — not just for ourselves but for others. And “Black Panther” has inspired us to find the spirit of Wakanda within and around all of us. No matter how imperfect we think we are, no matter how far from our goals we believe ourselves to be, to someone who is watching us now, we provide hope and are an inspiration for what is possible. Be that light that shines out for others to see. Embrace it. #RepresentationMatters #BlackLawyersMatter
Read more of this article in American Bar Association
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Sonya Som is a partner in Major Lindsey & Africa's Chicago/ Midwest office and is primarily responsible for strategizing and leading networking, business development and marketing initiatives for our In-House Practice Group team throughout the Midwest