Mental Health and the Strong Black Woman Archetype

By Rebekkah Yisrael Mulholland
PhD Candidate, History Department. University of Memphis

Recently, while going through some stuff in my closet, I came across a note a friend wrote for me back in 2010 as we wrapped up our study abroad trip in South Africa. She wrote many humbling and beautiful things in this note. One of the things that stood out to me was her referring to me as a strong (black) woman. As I read that line, I wondered what led to her defining me in such a way. I read that note, particularly that line, repeatedly. As I did so, I thought back to where I was mentally. The year 2010 started out on a strong note. I was accepted into graduate school to obtain a Master’s in Humanities with a concentration in African and African American Studies. In February of that year, I decided to study abroad in South Africa. In June, we began preparing for our July departure. One Friday night in June, I almost passed out in the shower, which caused to me freak out. I thought I was dying. My head was spinning, my heart racing, and my body became too heavy to hold up.

Cloud with words such as Inability, Deficiency, Disconnection, Helplessness, Rejection, Weakness, Disorder, Injury Scarcity Abandonment, Instability, Rejection.The following Monday morning, I went to Student Health Services on campus to see what was up. I had very low blood counts. As it turned out, I was severely anemic. This not knowing what was going on with my body, led to the next two and a half years of anxiety and panic attacks. During this time, I had daily anxiety and/or panic attacks. I found myself staying in my apartment out of fear that I would have an attack in public. I limited my outside travels to going to class, work, and occasional outings with friends. If it had not been for school, I may have suffered a lot more than I did. Graduate school was a great experience for me. On the outside, I was cool as a cucumber, on the inside, I was suffering. At home, I was suffering by myself and in silence. I remember telling my mother a little bit of the things I was going through. Late one night, I called her because I was having shooting pains in my right arm. I knew it was not a heart attack, but the pain was enough to scare me. Therefore, she drove from her home in Cincinnati to Dayton where I was living and attending school to take me to the ER. While waiting to be seen, my mother handed me an article and said to me, “Here read this. This sounds like you.” The first line of the article read, “I feel like I am dying.” This did sound like me. At the time, I felt and even said this line at least twice a day. The article was about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I was suffering from GAD. Really, just from almost passing out in my shower late one night about roughly four months before reading this article? This experience goes against the image and definition of the strong black woman or does it?

In a BuzzFeed article, “It’s Time to Say Goodbye to TV’s Strong Black Woman” by Nichole Perkins, this archetype is defined as a woman “who can take on the world with no thought of their own needs, without emotion, and without complaint.” This image of black womanhood puzzles me. While this superhero image of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, why do we have to suppress our emotions, neglect our needs, and suck up how we feel in order to not appear weak? In order to be what we need to be for others, how does neglecting ourselves help? This archetype is supposed to re-imagine and re-define black womanhood in the place of the negative stereotypes that have been the perceptions of black womanhood. While this model of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, it is dangerous as it causes black women to suffer in silence as we are thought to be superwomen.

Chalkboard with words "Stop the Sigma, Mental Health Problems." Mental Health problems has a diagonal strike through it.What I mean by this archetype being dangerous for black women are the psychological affects it has on us. Within the black community, mental health is not a topic that is discussed, and therapy is not an option for many for various reasons. Within the community, mental health tends to be stigmatized and most would say that going to church would solve all problems. Among black women, depression is one of those unspoken dangers. When it comes to the mental health of adolescent girls, no one talks about the black girls who suffer from eating disorders, cutting, and depression. Being a historian, I do trace these behaviors back to slavery when our many great grandmothers were supposed to suppress their feelings. They were physically and mentally brutalized and forced to keep such incidents to themselves and keep moving along. While the times may have changed, people’s attitudes about how we are to handle our mental (in)stabilities are often handled the same way, “keep it to yourself,” “don’t tell nobody,” “just don’t think about it,” and “you’re too strong to let that get you down.” These sayings are dangerous and detrimental to our health. We should not and do not have to suffer in silence.

One of the most important things black women can do for themselves is learn self-care techniques. For me, the most important is therapy. The importance of having someone to talk to without a sermon or judgment cannot be stressed enough. It is my hope that as students make the decision to attend the University of Memphis that they are made aware of the Counseling Center and the Relaxation Zone on campus. Taking on the responsibility of balancing adulthood, coursework, and social lives makes a healthy mental state crucial to overall health and academic success. The center is a place for everyone. It is a safe space.

Please check out the Counseling Center’s website and find the resources offered: https://www.memphis.edu/counseling/


Rebekkah Mulholland is a Doctoral Candidate, currently pursuing a PhD in History at the U of M. Her interests are 19th and 20th century African-American history with an emphasis on black transgender women and gender nonconforming women of color within the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Trans Liberation Movements as well as in the era of mass incarceration. Rebekkah was the president of the Graduate Association for African-American History (GAAAH) at the UofM. She is assisting the Hooks Institute on several projects such as the Benjamin Hooks Papers Digitization Project and the 2019 National Book Award.


The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

Busing Worked For Me

In the Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 the issue of busing, for school integration, was raised. The morning following the debate, Good Morning America reported that during the debate, there was a spike in tweets about busing. There were, likely, tweets both in favor of and against busing. I had a personal reaction to the issue because I, too, was a little girl who was bused to school for the purpose of integration.

As a first grader in September of 1967, I was among the third class of students to participate in the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program in Rochester, New York. In 1963, The New York State Commissioner of Education asked school districts statewide to report on racial imbalance in their schools and to develop a plan to reduce the imbalance. While most districts reported that racial imbalance was not a problem in their schools, the West Irondequoit School District, which had very few minority students, decided it wanted to give its students opportunities for cross-cultural interactions. In February of 1965, the West Irondequoit School District Board unanimously passed a resolution to voluntarily welcome minority students from the Rochester Public School System. The New York State Department of Education provided program funding for the first 24 first grade students to enroll in West Irondequoit schools in September of 1965. My sister was among that first group. Thus, began the first voluntary busing program in the United States.

Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979. Rochester, NY
Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979, Rochester, NY.
Rorie Trammel, second row, third from the right.

The Urban-Suburban program was voluntary on two fronts: school districts voluntarily voted to participate, and Rochester City Schools parents voluntarily chose to participate in the program. All was not perfect when those first students arrived on buses in West Irondequoit. While the school board was committed to the value of intercultural interactions, there were, not surprisingly, some residents who were not as welcoming. The Urban-Suburban parents were prepared, however. Mothers took time off work to ride the buses with their children. Disturbances such as rock throwing at the buses soon disappeared and the educational experiment was underway.

The Urban-Suburban program implemented several special strategies to help make our time as “educational residents” of Irondequoit a positive experience. Mothers of resident students were asked to volunteer to be room mothers for those of us who were bused to the school. I recall that most of my Irondequoit friends’ mothers were stay-at-home mothers, while the mothers of those of us who were bused worked outside of the home. That meant that if something happened to us during the school day, it wasn’t easy for them to come to the school That’s where the room mothers stepped in. From first grade through fourth grade, my room mother was Mrs. Maley, the mother of my new friend, Linda Maley. I loved Mrs. Maley and the Maley family. In fact, after I discovered that if I forgot my lunch, I would get to walk home with Linda to have a freshly prepared lunch made and set out lovingly by Mrs. Maley, I started to “forget” my lunch on purpose! In elementary school, when we wanted to participate in after school activities such as Brownies and Girl Scouts, there were friends who welcomed us into their homes until our parents could pick us up after work. Mary Lynne Barker, to whom I assigned the nickname “Favorite”, in first grade was that friend for me. In high school, the Urban-Suburban program provided an early bus and late bus that enable us to participate in activities such as band and sports teams. We had sleepovers and attended birthday parties at our Irondequoit friends’ homes. Many of my Irondequoit friends ventured “into the city” to attend my 9th birthday party.

In the teen years, however, there were some socialization limitations. White teens and African American teens had different interests, listened to different music, and had different thoughts about social issues of the times. I had my white “school friends” and my African American “neighborhood friends”. In school I felt some isolation when, because of the small number of African American students in each cohort, I was usually the only African American in each of my classes and in activities like band and the National Honor Society. I looked forward to lunch time when I would get to interact with other African American students.

Even as a child, I knew that being in Urban-Suburban was a great opportunity. When I was in middle school, I was asked to participate in a group of African American and white students created by the Urban-Suburban program to speak to school districts who had not yet joined the program. We discussed how our friendships and experiences in Urban-Suburban gave us opportunities for cross-cultural learning and understanding. Irondequoit resident parents and parents of bused students were included in the discussion as the Urban-Suburban program evolved. Today, a parent advisory council still exists.

Participating in the Urban-Suburban program fostered in me a strong willingness and ability to have positive relationships with people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. Having the experience of friendships with children of other races gave me a natural desire to respect and develop an understanding of differences. I recall being very excited when, in high school, we had an exchange program with, predominantly, Hispanic students from a city high school. As a student at the University of Memphis, I naturally, became friends with white students and international students. While I joined organizations that were comprised of, primarily, African American students, once again, I also found myself one of only a few African American students in organizations in which most of students were white. Because of my Urban-Suburban experience, I continue to embrace the value of friendships and experiences with a diverse spectrum of people. I also embrace the opportunity to talk about issues of race, whether it’s with friends, in the workplace, in public forums, etc. As associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, I spend each day fulfilling the Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change.

From my experience, and that of my three sisters, all of whom participated in Urban-Suburban, the busing experiment worked. We received an exceptional education attending West Irondequoit schools from first grade through twelfth grade. We had close friendships with white students who were with us through high school graduation, several of whom I’m still in touch with. The key was the program’s voluntary foundation, the support of the New York State Department of Education and the extra efforts made by the program, the school district and teachers and staff in the schools. They were committed to Urban-Suburban being a positive experience for everyone. The expansion of the program, to include additional suburban districts since 1965, hasn’t been without detractors. Even in the last ten years, some suburban residents have resisted their school districts approving participation in the program. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the Urban-Suburban program is still thriving as a voluntary busing program, committed to educational equity.


Rorie Trammel is the associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Trammel plays an integral role in the activities of the Hooks Institute including administrative and operations duties, fundraising and donor relations, and coordination of the Institute’s National Book Award. Trammel, also, oversees strategic planning and implementation of the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI). She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Memphis (UofM). She is also a former UofM employee, having worked in the Office of Development for fourteen years. Rorie worked for the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South for fourteen and a half years, first as executive director of urban programming and later as vice president for advancement. For many years, Rorie could be heard as a volunteer radio reader for WYPL, the radio station at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. She is a member of the New Memphis Institute and, previously, served on the boards of directors for Partners in Public Education (PIPE), the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents, and the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

A Day in the Life of A Court Watcher: The Power of Presence

Innocent until proven guilty. Does this well-known statement ring true within Memphis and Shelby County? Are people involved in the criminal legal system treated humanely and respectfully? A program for everyday people to observe happenings in the courtroom, Court Watch uncovers both justice and injustice. It is in place to promote transparency and accountability with elected officials; participate as members of the community; collect narratives; and uncover gender, racial, and other demographic disparities within the court system.

A day in the life of a Court Watcher in Memphis. Ascend 201 Poplar through the court side. Join the public line to enter the building. Some people may be showing up for their court dates, others may be lawyers, others may even be Court Watchers. Don’t forget to take out your phone and keys before going through the metal detector. Descend down the vast, open staircase to the dungeon of courts. Wonder how people with disabilities enter the building. Observe surroundings and see hundreds of Black and Brown bodies sitting, talking, thinking. Wonder why most White folks are dressed in formal attire—oh, they must be the lawyers. Wave hello to your group of Court Watchers with apparent white “Just City Court Watch” buttons. It’s time to go in.

Enter the courtroom. We are told that some judges dislike our presence in the courtroom while some don’t mind us being there. Our placement in the courtroom oftentimes depends on this. “Can you hear what the judge/defendant/lawyers are saying?” Court Watchers ask one another. We try to grasp as much information we can about the cases: appearance of race and gender, charge, can/cannot make bail, any loved ones present, behavior of legal staff, and other notes we may find apparent.  Then we reconvene after watching to talk about important things we noticed or things that caught our eye. This reconvening is one of my favorite parts of Court Watch because we hear other perspectives and see the courtroom through another’s eyes.

As Court Watchers, it is our role to take notes on what we see in the courtroom—the good and the bad. Court Watchers are taught—through training and observing—about the processes of court from arraignment to trial and about the importance of this work. Run by Just City, a nonprofit in Memphis that does work to create a smaller, fairer, more humane criminal justice system, this program is based on similar programs across the United States where people build accountability, foster community participation, and collect narratives within the court system. Not only does this program allow the public to be involved in the everyday happenings of the court, but it also provides a way to learn more about how the system of crime and courts works in the Memphis and Shelby County area. Having up close encounters with defendants, public defenders, prosecutors, private attorneys, judges, public officials, and defendants’ loved ones, this opportunity has yielded an immense amount of growth in learning about the ins and outs of our criminal legal system.

Oftentimes one of the most forgotten about and marginalized groups of society are those involved with the criminal legal system. As community members, we can show that we care and that we have not forgotten about this population by using our power vocally, visually, and presently. Just by being in the courtroom, it shows that the community cares about what happens behind closed doors—whether they be doors of a jail cell or doors of a courtroom. Using our power of presence, we can show that we are listening, we want to end criminalization of poverty, and we want to see transparency and accountability in our criminal legal system.

After every Court Watch shift, we as Court Watchers are able to walk freely out of that dungeon while many folks in there do not have the same luxury. Court Watch raises this awareness and opens the legal system up to those who may not otherwise know the inner workings of the system, instead of leaving it up to the marginalized, arrested, convicted, and legal professionals. Building community around this is crucial to gaining widespread awareness of justice and injustice and creating a more equitable and efficient system. In hopes to alter the criminal legal system on a path to justice and equity, Just City will publish their Court Watch blog and propose strategies to state government and lawmakers. Using our power as Court Watchers and community members, this awareness can lead to questioning of the status quo in hopes to change the future of what the criminal justice system may look like.

Interested in becoming a Just City Court Watcher? Go to courtwatch.justcity.org/.


Lulu Abdun is a volunteer at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and a recent graduate of Miami University (Ohio) where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Black World Studies with a minor in Linguistics. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, she returned home post-grad and has been involved in community-based projects—mostly with local nonprofits—and a computer programming course. A lifelong learner, she enjoys traveling; reading; and learning about social justice/reform, human rights, the criminal legal system, and interfaith work.


The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

On Black Womanhood at the Intersection of Black Existentialism and Black Feminism

By: Reina Henderson

The criticism and vitriol swarming around Serena Williams after her  passionate reaction to the umpire of the finals match between her and Naomi Osaka is nothing new for black women. Right or wrong in her assertions and regardless of wherever one may lean on one side of the debate or the other, there nevertheless remains the familiar traces of specifically-worded critiques all too common when it comes to black women. Whether intended or not, the caricature image, a satire of the event for the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun, employs racial stereotypes in order to make fun of her. Exaggerated full lips, the exploitation of her anger (utilizing the image of the ABW or “Angry Black Woman”), even the whitewashing of Naomi, a biracial half-Haitian, half-Japanese woman, into someone blonde and white (emphasizing her complexion’s proximity to whiteness) demonstrates a subtle minstrel in all but name.

Black womanhood resides at the intersection of black existentialism and black feminism, and a key element of struggle that black women contend with is white standards of beauty and image. The experiences of black women in particular bear special note due to the understanding that black women are born with two strikes against them, their race and their gender, if living in much of the Western world. bell hooks and Toni Morrison explore this concept in-depth. bell hooks explores this in her book Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism where she discusses problems of racism, sexism, and the diminishing of black womanhood from white women in the feminist movement, from black men in the racial equality movement, and from Western society respectively.[1] Repudiation from black men and white women toward black women in these spaces exacerbates the fight of black women who already must contend with a white patriarchal world.

Black women, therefore, have also experienced oppression from white women and black men relegating them outside of the movements claiming to challenge the society with which they already contend. Without proper support being in such a unique position, hooks’ solution is to form a sisterhood of black women to take on the mantle of the fight. Not through self-segregation, but to become aware of the struggle and position and seek first fellow black women to relate to and promote each other. If none will wholly, or only marginally, take up the cause of advocating for equality with black women, then it is up to black women themselves to do so even if it must be alone.

Toni Morrison delves even deeper into the issue including when it comes to black female image and beauty. Although her novel The Bluest Eye is fictional, it is based on truths and experiences of black women in conflict with white standards of beauty.[2] Pecola, the main character, is a dark-skinned, full-lipped, and coarse-haired young woman. Throughout the novel, she is often teased and called “ugly” making her wish to have bright blue eyes like the white dolls with which she grew up playing. Eventually in the novel, after giving birth to a premature baby sired by her own father through rape, she develops a psychosis for which people around her take pity on her. However, due to her psychosis, she thinks her newfound attention is because she has finally obtained the blue eyes she always wanted.

Morrison’s fictionalized account exposes black women’s experiences of being constantly told that black womanhood and beauty is inferior to white women.[3] The farther one is from that white female standard of beauty of being blonde, thin, pale, and blue-eyed, the uglier she is considered to be. This affects both the psyche and the appearance as many black women have attempted in various ways to conform to the white female standard of beauty believing themselves inferior in reality. Although not explicitly stated, the implied solution from Morrison is for black women to love and embrace their natural features, and bond with other black women sharing the pain like Claudia and Frieda, Pecola’s friends, do for her. In other words, a black woman is beautiful with all her natural features. [4]

When an image like The Herald Sun’s satire begins to circulate, it is indicative of this underlying perception of black women. Serena is molded into the ABW while Naomi can be stripped of her black features and portrayed as the “proper” white contrast to Serena. This piece is in no way intended to make a statement on the racial beliefs of the artist who has denied, since publication of the image, any racial basis for his cartoon. Nevertheless, intended or not, the image is infused, perhaps absent-mindedly, with these stereotypes and aids in their perpetuation. Thus, it makes an understanding of the consequences of such portrayals all the more necessary.

About Reina Henderson

Reina was born and raised in Chattanooga, TN. She attended high school at Boyd-Buchanan School in Chattanooga, a co-educational private Christian School, from which she graduated in 2012. She studied a year at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina before transferring to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN. Here, she double majored in History and Philosophy, and graduated in 2017 earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in each major. In 2015, she became a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated, and while in her undergraduate chapter she served terms as both president and secretary. She currently attends the University of Memphis as a graduate student studying for her Master of Arts in History, and is a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Upon graduation, she intends to pursue her PhD in History and eventually become a professor.


[1] hooks, bell. 1982. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto.

[2] Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[3] Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[4] Henderson, Reina. 2017. To Empower and Uplift the Race: A Historiography of Black Existentialism. Unpublished paper, The University of Memphis.

Photograph 1:Williams S. RG18 (17). 1 June 2018. Author: si.robi. https://flickr.com/photos/16732597@N07/41168711240

Photograph 2: Toni Morrison speaking at “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe – 50 Years Anniversary of ‘Things Fall Apart'”. The Town Hall, New York City, February 26th, 2008. Date 18 December 2008, 20:44 (UTC) Author Angela Radulescu

Where Has the Racism Gone?

By Elena Delavega, PhD, Hooks Institute Associate Director

 

Elena Delavega, Ph.D., Associate Director, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

When I first arrived in Memphis, I was awe-struck by the racism. I everywhere, and it was visible. I could feel it. I could smell it. It was so thick, one could cut it with scissors. At first, I could not put my finger on it, but by paying attention, I was able to observe that people’s position in society seemed to be determined by their race. I also paid attention to how well the city took care of white areas, and how poorly it took care of African American areas. By carefully paying attention, it became clear to me that oppression and exclusion were a feature of the community.

Fast forward seven years, and the racism does not feel so awful in Memphis. This is incredibly dangerous and it is the lull that leads us to accept the racism as a natural part of life. It does not “feel” so awful anymore because I have become used to it and inured to it. It is still there. It is the same racism and the same oppression that existed seven years ago, that has not changed. I have to conclude that what has changed is my perception.

Humans have a great ability to adapt and to accept new environments. It is this ability is not accidental, but necessary for survival. However, that which is adaptive in an environment and would have allowed our ancestors to survive changing conditions can have horrible and maladaptive consequences in other places and times.

That is what has happened here. Our ability to adapt to circumstances has led me to accept racism as a natural part of the community and to not even see it anymore.

I fight against this. I recognize the awfulness of the still existing deep and noxious racism in Memphis and in the State of Tennessee, but I wonder how many people, otherwise good and decent people have become so well adapted to Memphis that they have stopped feeling and seeing the awful racism that pervades everything here?

This is a call to examination and to critical consciousness. We need to become careful observers of our environment and to recognize the need for awareness and for attention. Racism has not gone away. Just our ability to see it has. If you open your eyes with honesty, you will see it. It is there and it must be fought, lest it takes over and destroys our souls.

The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

A Well-Lived Life: My Friend, Mentor and Boss: Attorney General Janet Reno

Attorney General Janet Reno died this morning in Miami, Florida, her hometown. I knew Ms. Reno had been ill for over two decades.  Having lost close family members after long illnesses myself, I know that the death of a loved one sneaks up on you, and when people you love die, it’s almost as if nobody told you they were ill. It’s a weird thing how the mind copes with loss – this was how I felt this morning.

Hooks Institute Executive Director, Daphene R. McFerren (Left) and Former United States Attorney General Janet Reno (right). Aug. 18, 2000. Photo credit: Jack Lacy
Hooks Institute Executive Director, Daphene R. McFerren (Left) and Former United States Attorney General Janet Reno (right). Aug. 18, 2000. Photo credit: Jack Lacy

I had the privilege of being counsel to Janet Reno, with my tenure ending at the end of President Bill Clinton’s administration.  Ms. Reno hired me to become one of the seven attorneys who helped manage contacts to the Attorney General from various departments at the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Ms. Reno believed public service was one of our nation’s highest callings.  She was  committed to making sound moral and legal judgments in the matters that came before her.  She managed over some of the most difficult of circumstances:  law enforcement’s response to the siege at WACO, Texas; the return of Elian Gonzales to his father and stepmother in Cuba; policing and minority communities; and more.

I traveled with her as part of President Bill Clinton’s delegation to the inauguration of the president of the Dominican Republic. I was frankly surprised and quite amused to learn on that trip that Ms. Reno was quite the celebrity (this was before the Saturday Night Live skit where she played herself).  Long before “selfies” became a household word, I saw people in the airport slowly walk up to Ms. Reno (who was sometimes being interviewed by the press), stand sideways, take a photo with her, and slowly ease away.  This was comical and I never saw or heard Ms. Reno complain.

Despite her sometimes serious demeanor, Mr. Reno was a hoot in her own right.   The public would often call directly the Attorney General’s office to offer advice or criticism of the Attorney General or the DOJ.  These calls were assigned to the support staff.  However, Ms. Reno would sometimes wander over to a ringing phone and answer “Janet Reno.”  You could see the telephone receiver freeze over with the “shock” from the person calling. They never expected to speak directly with the Attorney General of the United States.  Both the caller and Ms. Reno were often amused with each other during the call.

My parents’ leadership as civil rights activists cemented in me long before I was seven-years-old that I wanted to be an attorney. However, I did not voluntarily tell Ms. Reno of my parents’ civil rights activism, or that a book, Our Portion of Hell (Hamburger 1973), had been written about my parents’ activism and the struggle for civil rights in Fayette County, Tennessee. I did share this book with a fellow colleague and he, unbeknownst to me, gave the book to Ms. Reno to read.

When I walked into her office one morning, Ms. Reno stood up and announced that she was going to have all of her department heads at the DOJ read Our Portion of Hell. While I should have been flattered, I was horrified that DOJ attorneys would sit around the table in the Attorney General’s conference room and read about my life, and then have a book club discussion about it.

While I was not comfortable being the subject of this book club discussion, I knew that Ms. Reno was trying to make an important point to the DOJ attorneys: she wanted them to know that their work in enforcing the law shaped, created, and changed the lives of millions in the nation. Indeed, in 1959, the Department of Justice sued white landowners in Fayette County under the 1957 Voting Rights Act to prevent them from interfering with African Americans right to vote. The Department of Justice also became a party to the 1965 school desegregation case, John McFerren, Jr. v. Fayette County Board of Education, where my brother served as the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to desegregate Fayette County Schools.  In her opinion, my parents’ activism and my life experiences represented what the law could achieve in its finest moments.  I finally persuaded Ms. Reno that I did not want to be “Exhibit A” for this department lesson and she dropped the idea – reluctantly so.

While I found Ms. Reno to be a very private person, she would reveal the most private details about her family and upbringing in a large crowd. It was apparent to me that she did so to show people she understood their suffering, concerns, and struggles because she was one of them.

In my final motorcade ride with Ms. Reno a few days near the end of President Bill Clinton’s Administration, Ms. Reno asked me about my plans at the end of that administration.  I told her I planned to stay in Washington, DC.  She sat thinking, while chewing on a pen (as she often did), and stated: “you need to go home!”  She continued, “you can spend the best years of your professional life living in Washington, going to the theatre, hanging out with people who went to the same schools you attended, and who are part of the same middle and upper-class circles you will travel in.  People are not MADE in Washington they are made in their hometowns.  If you are not careful, you will have spent the best years of life having made no contributions to the very community that created you.  GO HOME!”

Our communications did not end there. After she left office, I visited Ms. Reno at her home in Miami and attended an awards ceremony honoring her in Washington, DC.  Ms. Reno nearly scared a Hooks Institute graduate student to death, by calling the Hooks Institute and stating, “Hello this is Janet Reno, I’d like to speak to Daphene McFerren.” The graduate student came into my office looking stricken and said “JANET RENO IS ON THE LINE!  I am convinced Ms. Reno was chuckling on the other end.

Ms. Reno was so special to all who knew her.  She lived a life in service to others aspiring to the highest ideals of public service.  I will always remember the advice she gave me about making tough decisions:  In public life, “you are going to get criticized anyway, so you might as well do the right thing.” Ms. Reno tried to do the right thing as Attorney General of the United States. Equally as important, she cared deeply about and appreciated the people who worked for her and the people she served.  I am a lucky and grateful recipient of the gifts of her life.

I will deeply miss my mentor, friend, and former boss, Janet Reno, former Attorney General of the United States.

Daphene R. McFerren
Executive Director
The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change