Patricia Williams is a lawyer and a professor of commercial law, the great-great-granddaughter of a slave and a white southern lawyer. The Alchemy of Race and Rights is an eloquent autobiographical essay in which the author reflects on the intersection of race, gender, and class. Using the tools of critical literary and legal theory, she sets out her views of contemporary popular culture and current events, from Howard Beach to homelessness, from Tawana Brawley to the law-school classroom, from civil rights to Oprah Winfrey, from Bernhard Goetz to Mary Beth Whitehead. She also traces the workings of “ordinary racism”—everyday occurrences, casual, unintended, banal perhaps, but mortifying. Taking up the metaphor of alchemy, Williams casts the law as a mythological text in which the powers of commerce and the Constitution, wealth and poverty, sanity and insanity, wage war across complex and overlapping boundaries of discourse. In deliberately transgressing such boundaries, she pursues a path toward racial justice that is, ultimately, transformative.
Williams gets to the roots of racism not by finger-pointing but by much gentler methods. Her book is full of anecdote and witness, vivid characters known and observed, trenchant analysis of the law’s shortcomings. Only by such an inquiry and such patient phenomenology can we understand racism. The book is deeply moving and not so, finally, just because racism is wrong—we all know that. What we don’t know is how to unthink the process that allows racism to persist. This Williams enables us to see. The result is a testament of considerable beauty, a triumph of moral tactfulness. The result, as the title suggests, is magic.
Williams is an original and imaginative mind, an unstultified, insubordinate thinker who jumps off cliffs and lands on her feet, who flies close to the sun and never melts her wings. She accomplishes the near impossible: simultaneous depth of engagement in law and world. The alchemical forge she theorizes between race and rights parallels her own method: ‘the making of something out of nothing.’ See what she makes out of sausage, polar bears, Beethoven. See if you can ever shop at Benetton’s again.
One of the most invitingly personal, even vulnerable, books I’ve read… Williams has a knack for keeping you just a bit off balance… Her readings invigorate familiar controversies: If you thought there was nothing new to be said about Howard Beach or Eleanor Bumpurs, Tawana Brawley or Baby M., read Williams on them. But some of the most magical turns of argument flow from far less public events… The law needs a brain…and, even more, a heart and some courage. Certificates won’t help. This book just might.
Williams melds sophisticated legal scholarship, memoir and allegory into a rich melange that will change perceptions about the substance and spirit of black women… At a time when the nation is wrestling with political correctness or wrongness…Williams’ candor about the law and her life is refreshing… The Alchemy of Race and Rights brings jurisprudence to the people while leaving no doubt that the author is among the finest legal talents among us.
This is a work where style and substance are deeply connected… Writers of feminist jurisprudence first pushed the door open wide some fifteen years ago, and many scholars of color have walked through. Williams’ work is among the best, and the most respected, in this tradition… There is passion in these essays, and there is rage, clarity, confusion, intelligence and tenderness. This is more than the alchemy of race and rights. This is the magic and complexity of life.
- 272 pages
- 5-7/8 x 9 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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