Book Review: Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice
by Nkechi Taifa
Publication Date: Sep 22, 2020
List Price: $28.99
Format: Paperback, 396 pages
Imprint: Taifa Group
Publisher: Taifa Group
Parent Company: Taifa Group
Borrow from Library
Book Reviewed by Carol Taylor
Much more than a memoir, Black Power, Black Lawyer traces not only Nkechi Taifa’s personal life, and her decades-long career as a lawyer and advocate for criminal justice reform, but also her history in the post-1960s fight for Black liberation, the Black Nationalist movement of the 1970s, and the social justice movements into the 2000s. Part memoir/part social justice journey/part Black history, Taifa also documents the Black Power movement’s fight against white supremacy and acknowledges its many social justice advocates, champions, and pioneers many of whom are lesser known in American history.
“My story is, both solemn and spicy. It is part memoir, part textbook, part study guide, part expose, Black Power, Black Lawyer teaches, preaches, rhapsodizes and tantalizes. It stitches suspense, calamity, humor and wit into a tapestry of history, politics, law, culture and romance. And it threads the needle connecting critical dots of the continuum for justice from yesteryear’s freedom fighters to today’s liberationists. These pages encapsulate slices of my life narrative—the story of a little pumpernickel-hued girl growing up in the eras of McCarthy, the Cold War and Civil Rights during the mid-20th century. The story of an impressionable young sister coming of age at the time of the Viet Nam War and the Black is Beautiful and Black Power Movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. The story of a maturing revolutionary finding her niche within the Cultural/Black Nationalist, Southern Africa freedom struggle, and reparations movements of the late 20th century. And the story of an indomitable woman-warrior-lawyer who helped transform criminal justice reform into a movement against mass incarceration in the new millennium.”
Taifa calls her memoir, an “audacious quest for justice” and “a gripping commentary on the realities of life, the perennial nature of human resistance against oppression, and my earnest embrace of what is fair and correct. Although sometimes raw, sometimes abrasive, sometimes passionate, I offer you my truth, unapologetically, and unfiltered, with honesty and authenticity.”
Taifa is blessed to be both a deft historian—it was her major in college—and a natural storyteller whose prose, recollections, and historical accounts, draw you into her life and cultural socio-political narrative. Her focus is mostly on what she calls “The Struggle,” spanning the first 50-plus years of her life. “These eras are generally explored linearly, measuring sequential points along a horizontal line. I, however, embrace the exploration of these times more holistically—examining phenomena not limited to their chronological occurrences, but connecting dots to contemporary manifestations.” Glowing quotes from luminaries, Angela Y. Davis, and Nikki Giovanni, attest to the significance of her life’s work.
Highlighting Taifa’s rich personal and political narratives and observations are historical photographs, poems, and ephemera of those eras. What we get is a fully immersive experience into a “kaleidoscope of reflections” of what shaped her as a Black woman, a Black Nationalist, a lawyer, and an advocate. Expansive and at times exhaustive, Taifa explores and analyzes not only her life but America and how its ongoing injustices against Black people prompted her to pursue a profession as a lawyer. As a social justice attorney fighting against mass incarceration, Taifa was instrumental in transforming criminal justice into a social justice movement.
Taifa’s parents were educators who met as students at Howard University. They instilled in her a thirst for knowledge of not only American history but African-American history. Her memoir, though extremely personal, also encompasses the social, cultural, political, and racial landscape of the country of the last few centuries when enslaved Africans were brought to America. However, she hones in on the last several decades, or what she calls “1954, and Before.” The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 (and how his mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral was a catalyst for social change) was especially impactful on Taifa.
“Till’s murder resulted from pure racial terrorism, a cornerstone of the Jim Crow South. Everything about his story stuck with me and remains a key part of my ever present quest for justice. Back then, I was not the kind of youngster who could shake off even the slightest injustice, and most certainly not the knowledge of something as horrific as a young boy being brutally killed because he said something to a White woman.” Taifa’s “heart was broken when she found out that the lives of children born Black were considered worth less than the lives of children born White.” She “grew into a woman who was determined to right societal wrongs and find a way to repair historical injustices.”
Emmett Till died in August 1955, 15 months after the Brown vs Board of Education, decision outlawed segregation in the nation’s public schools, 4 months before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and 8 months after Taifa was born. She is not sparing in her account of the horrors inflicted on Black men women and children in the Jim Crow South, where they were routinely beaten, raped, and tortured, as a prelude to lynching. Taifa chronicles the anti-Black terrorists groups such as the KKK and the injustice done to Black bodies and communities. The most well known is the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma of an affluent all-Black business district known as “Black Wall Street, which killed over 300 Blacks and destroyed over 600 businesses.” Less well known but no less bloody is the 1873 Colfax Massacre, and the 1923 Rosewood slaughter, where an entire flourishing Black Florida town was destroyed by lynch mobs. Taifa starkly relates the injustices against Blacks in America—and how it has been aided and abetted by white supremacy—as she makes her case for sweeping reparations. Although these atrocities are hard to read about, they underscore her argument.
In the book Taifa describes her myriad experiences growing up Black and a woman in America—such as sexual abuse, and the double-edged sword of sexism and racism—as well as our struggles as a people. She experienced racism from whites and colorism from Blacks. This belief that lighter is better, has reinforced a false sense of superiority and privilege among Blacks who are lighter against those who are darker. This damaging ideology in the Black community upholds the idea of a European standard of beauty, and fosters unconscious self-hate, and a negative self-image, which centers whiteness and aids white supremacy. Taifa dissects the many armed beast that is white supremacy and how its tentacles reach every aspect of American society. She charts the rise of Pan Africanism and the Black Power movements up through the 1980s War on Drugs and the crack cocaine epidemic, mass incarceration, and the election of the first Black president, and then after, as the pendulum swung back to the right, with the election of Donald Trump. Along the way we have an engrossing account of her journey from a little Black girl, to criminal justice defender and ultimately reformer.
In these pages we get the behind the scenes account of her meetings with key leaders in the Black Nationalism and Black Power movements, and as a policy analyst for billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. Her connections to Black leaders and change makers run the gamut from Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, to Congresswoman Maxine Waters among many others. Taifa also recognizes freedom fighters in the Black Power movement—Chokwe Lumumba, Geronimo Pratt, Kwame Ture (AKA Stokely Carmichael), Reverend Dr. Ishakamusa Barashango, and Kwame Afo, whose untimely deaths have all but removed them from the annals of history.
The true transformative power of Black Power, Black Lawyer, is that it weaves together personal memoir, social justice, and compelling often untold historical narratives, into a rich tapestry that moves Black history to the center of American history, where it belongs. A phenomenal woman in her own right, Taifa’s life and experiences as a social justice defender and legal advocate, tell a broader more inclusive story of our history and people, through the lens of one of its staunchest defenders.