Lolita Buckner Inniss has served on the faculty at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Cleveland State University since 1998. She also serves as a graduate associate of the Institute of Feminist Legal Studies at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, in Toronto, Canada, where she is a candidate for the PhD. Professor Inniss has an AB from Princeton University, a JD from the University of California at Los Angeles, and an LLM from Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. Professor Inniss currently teaches Property Law, Criminal Law, Race and the Law and Law in Literature and Film. Her current research is in the areas of critical legal rhetoric, comparative racism, and law in film. Her blog, racelawinniss, is here; her scholarly papers are posted at ssrn here.
FeministLawProfessors recently asked Professor Inniss, “When did you first make a connection between feminism and the law?”
LBI: Much of my scholarly work has been in the areas of immigration and race, and it is only in the past three or four years that I have addressed a specifically feminist agenda. However, there have always been feminist implications to my work and one might even say that the feminist agenda has been percolating within me for quite some time.
In the black neighborhood in Los Angeles where I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, much of the focus of my family and my community was on empowering black people. There were many pressing issues that oppressed black people:poverty, poor schools, growing crime (this was the same period in which violent street gangs began to wreak havoc), and police brutality were just a few of the problems we faced. Black women are, of course, to be accounted among black people, but in the case of the uplift movements in my community, and in the case of many such movements for racial advancement, gender issues took a back seat to what was perceived as the more important and broader agenda for racial advancement.
We shook our fists and shouted slogans such as “Black Power!” (even we little kids) but all too often the black feminist agenda was left by the wayside. Suppression of the black feminist agenda seemed to be the sacrifice demanded for a meaningful black solidarity. None of this was ever made explicit. We were poor and working class folks who embraced the black liberation movement and served it in the small ways that we could given our limited access to power. For example, we voted for candidates of color when they managed to get on the ballot, cheering when the late Thomas Bradley, the first and only black mayor of Los Angeles, first ran for office in 1969. Bradley lost to a white opponent in a starkly race-baiting campaign, but nonetheless Bradley’s run, along with the general sense of hope that came with each advance gained, empowered and emboldened the black community in ways that were large and small. By contrast, when Congresswoman Shirley Chislom sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, her candidacy was met with a preternatural silence in my community and in my home, despite my own elation. We were for change, we were for change on a big scale. But I guess not for that much change. I pondered this as I watched the unfolding of the Black Power agenda.
Flush with new found pride we wore African-inspired clothes and hairstyles. We hung calendars featuring Martin Luther King and other stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement on our walls. Those of us who were more daring also put pictures of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X on the walls. A few people like me, perhaps ever destined to be on the margins, hung a photo of Angela Davis on our walls, that is, until my mother made me take it down. Black Power was a well accepted notion by then, but Angela Davis was, for my parents and for some of the black people in my neighborhood, scary. A highly educated young black woman philosophy professor at UCLA who was an acknowledged feminist and communist was just too much for some to take. In my child’s mind, though, Angela Davis made the black liberation movement make sense.
I kept the picture of Angela Davis in my drawer along with my nascent feminist thoughts, but I didn’t completely forget about her. I grew up and went to college at Princeton where I studied French literature, like Angela Davis had in her undergraduate years. During college I traveled to Haiti and wrote a thesis about a Haitian women writer whore work challenged the excesses of the Duvalier regime. After college I wasn’t sure of what to do so I took one of the traditional routes of the undecided:I enrolled in law school. I found myself back home at UCLA, walking the grounds where several years before Angela Davis had taught. Law school was great, and law practice after that was enriching (despite a winding road), but it was several years later when I began law teaching that I truly found myself.
When I first began teaching I wrote about immigration law. Later I expanded my work to include discussions of race and the law. In recent years I have developed an interest in comparative racism and gender discrimination with a focus on the United States and Canada. Last year I completed a research based LLM at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University in Canada, where I continue in the PhD program. In my dissertation I use critical discourse analysis to assess the positioning of black women in U.S. and Canadian case law. With this work I have pulled the photo of Angela Davis out of the drawer.