By Ashley Mitchell • February 06, 2014•Writers in Residence
“Like many people all over the country, I knew a little about the Flo Kennedy legend long before I met her in the flesh. In fact, the name “Flo” alone was enough to evoke images of outrageous and creative trouble-making in almost any area, from minority hiring to ban-the-bomb. Just as there was only one Eleanor or Winston, one Stokely or Marilyn or Mao, there was only one Flo.”
– Gloria Steinem on Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Ms. magazine (1973)
The late Florynce Kennedy was indubitably a badass. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her political and social leanings, to be aware of who she was is to know that describing her as such is no overstatement. The one-word description might actually be understating her legacy. Even so, her confidence and self-awareness appears to have come so naturally to her; so easy that it is just as easy to overlook the bravery, the self-reflection, the fight, and likely, the isolation, that she endured in order to become the woman, the public figure, and the success that she was.
I can only imagine.
Creating boundaries within my own social and professional relationships in order to assert and maintain my individuality has been quite difficult. I have lost both friends and opportunities as a result of these efforts, and I have spent probably too much time coping with the distraction of being plain old misunderstood. But to maintain a strong footing in my reality and to advance to the future that I have envisioned, it has to be done. Flo, though, pulled it off with such style. Me – not so much.
One of the best pieces of advice that I received before entering law school was from an undergraduate professor who also served as a magistrate judge. “Guard your heart at all cost,” he shared with me in his chambers about pursuing a legal career. He related the suggestion with such intensity that it kind of scared me. He then asked me if I knew what that meant. I replied, yes. Really, though, I understood the “guard your heart” part but not so much the “cost” part.
We are all a part of groups: family groups, cultural groups, community groups, school and professional groups, and so on. As supportive as these groups have the potential to be, whether these groups are chosen or dictated – by birth or social structures – there exist responsibilities that individuals have to these groups. At times, these responsibilities have the ability to tug on our individuality. Perhaps, based on one’s perception, one’s desire to express their individuality impedes their ability to serve their respective communities according to the community’s standard. This particular column, however, is about the former: when our desire to express ourselves collides with those unwritten responsibilities to (or demands from) the communities of which we are a part.
To illustrate, a couple of days ago, a friend posted an article written by a Florida-based attorney, Chelsi Henry, entitled, “I’m Young, African American, Female and … Republican!” The Republican National Committee recently recognized Henry as a “Rising Star”. Nonetheless, the very title of her article illustrates this point: Henry lists several ways in which she identifies herself with the ellipsis indicating a caveat to these identities, which is that she is a Republican.
Beyond the scope of this article is whether I agree or disagree with Henry’s political beliefs. And while I expected the comments that lay ahead in the comments section, I was surprised by how caught up in my feelings that I became. I could identify with her desire to justify her beliefs, how it feels to be completely and wholly invalidated or discredited based on a difference of opinion, or to experience a collective disapproval, due to personal convictions, from a group to which you feel so deeply connected as to feel socially exiled or personally rejected. I can testify that it is not a good feeling. In fact, it is downright unsettling, especially when the collection of convictions or values that you hold is the truth that keeps you from becoming unglued.
I believe that I had such an unexpected reaction because I have been criticized and ostracized in so many different ways by members of groups to which I belong – from my weight to my voice to my choice of friends to my career path – as to become angry at the personal attacks placed upon Chelsi. When people offer not opinions, (I happily welcome those), but strong convictions about the who, what, why, and how of you, based on notions of group membership, conforming seems like the easiest, most peaceful way out of an uncomfortable and potentially damaging situation.
How do you guard your heart, or protect your individuality, at the risk of such a powerful statement of rejection?
I am not even going to pretend that I know the answer to that question, but I can guess that the answer is, you can’t. For me, I learned that the cost was, in fact: the risk of rejection. And because of the steadfastness I hold in my individuality, I have become comfortable with that cost as compared to the more significant cost of self-rejection.
A couple of weeks ago, as an activity to become more in touch with who I am, and as an alternative way to express myself, I decided to sign up for an Improv class. Part of this venture was to distance myself a bit from the law: the practice and the practitioners. But I was primarily inspired by five people: LaKendra Tookes (a fellow Florida Gator), Leslie Jones, Sasheer Zamata – the newly hired writers and cast member of Saturday Night Live, respectively; Alexis Wilkinson, the president-elect of Harvard Lampoon; and my older brother… who just thinks I’m funny.
My first objective was a failure. In my small Improv class of 12, five of us are lawyers. I assume that we are all trying to recover our individuality, so I am less disappointed about this defeat. My second objective, to find a safe space to be unabashedly myself, was met with an overwhelming responsibility to my community. One of the guidelines of improvisation is to be in the moment; to let the physical nature of the activity precipitate the dialogue. But I was so committed to not being a stereotype – that is, to betray my race, my gender, all of my identities for the sake of being funny – that I was not committed to the activity at-hand. I was so focused on suppressing my most commonly-used phrases such as, “Hey girl!” or the natural movements of my body, that I often forgot the instructions. Ultimately, I did not want to end up like this: UCB's Be Blacker.
The clip is hilarious, right?
The most formative part of the night of my first Improv class was the evaluation process on the drive home. When I arrived home, I wrote down on a piece of paper the encapsulation of my thoughts, in all capital letters, which applies to my attitude moving forward in my Improv class and my legal career: “You owe it to yourself to be yourself. You owe it to your team to be yourself. And it’s only worthwhile if you express yourself.”
I know. It is so basic. And corny. But it is my truth, and I am already a better person for it.
I'm just a loud-mouthed, middle-aged colored lady with a fused spine and three feet of intestines missing, and a lot of people think I'm crazy. Maybe you do too, but I never stopped to wonder why I'm not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me. – Florynce “Flo” Kennedy
Right on, Flo. Right on!