The lawyer, the slave girl and the rooster's egg

This year's Reith lecturer is American, female and black.
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Her great-great grandfather bought her great-great grandmother aged 11 for an undisclosed sum. By the age of 13, according to the archives, she had given birth to his child.

"You see, he wanted to breed more slaves from her for his plantation," says Professor Patricia Williams, the black American lawyer and authority on race and gender issues, who will give the 1997 Reith Lectures on the legacy and persistence of racism.

Professor Williams, 45, speaks dispassionately of her ancestors, the white lawyer from the Deep South, Austin Miller, and Sophie, the teenage African slave girl he used as a brood mare. But there is no doubt they have been a motivating force in an illustrious career as a practising commercial lawyer, in academia, and on the intellectual celebrity circuit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now professor of law at Columbia University in New York, she wrote her first book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, because she felt that it was something that she "owed" her ancestors. Published here in 1993 and regarded as one of the feminist classics of the last 20 years, it came, Professor Williams says, out of an "almost mystical sense of purpose.

"I wrote it to sort out my own life. Consider the contradictions of my being a law professor on one hand, and on the other, of being the great, great grand-daughter of a white slave-owning lawyer who then became a judge in an area of law - contract law - that had directly enslaved my great, great, grandmother and which I was now teaching as my subject. It was the sort of serendipitous discovery I couldn't not write about."

But it is her second book, The Rooster's Egg, published in 1995, that Professor Williams will predominantly draw on when she records the five Reith lectures for broadcast on BBC Radio 4 next month. The title is a Jamaican term in which the child of a white father and a black mother is defined solely by its paternal origins. He or she is the product (egg) of the father (the rooster) and the mother ceases to exist.

The book explores in detail contemporary issues of American life, dispels some of the myths with hard evidence, and offers some solutions.

It deals with the welfare system and how it is perceived by white America to be a problem created solely by single black mothers; explains how affirmative action is not simply about greedy, do-nothing blacks taking jobs from honest white folks; and how the broadcast media - particularly the radio "shock-jocks" - are renewing the propaganda of prejudice to the young white males who make up their audience. Professor Williams writes memorably of being "more and more surrounded by mega-watted expressions of hate and discrimination".

While Britain has yet to import the racist venom of American broadcasters such as Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, and while the riots of the 1980s are a troubling but distant memory, Professor Williams believes the US experience is relevant.

"I would not presume to say what Great Britain should do about its problems but I hope, in the lectures, to offer the insights of an outsider. The US has a history of developed thinking on, and discussions about, these things which perhaps Great Britain, only recently a multi- cultural society, has yet to face."

Race and class are defined differently here, she says, but that does not mean that the problems are different. At a lunch in London given in her honour last summer, she asked the guests - a mix of the great and the good - about the state of public and political debate in Britain on the subjects of race and class. The near unanimous response was that both had vanished from the agenda.

Yet at the same time the case of cricketers Imran Khan v Ian Botham and Allan Lamb - which revolved around allegations of racism but which also became a class issue - was dominating the headlines. "They are the same `hot button' ingredients here," she says. "Generally, one can talk cross- culturally about race."

Professor Williams recalls another illuminating event earlier in that same trip to London, when her taxi from the airport was caught up in a traffic jam on the M4.

"It was the day after England and Germany played each other in some championship. The driver of my cab conducted a long post-mortem with another driver stuck in another lane. I learned a lot about the class issues, racial, ethnic and nationalistic feeling here then," she says. She discovered that being English is not the same as being British, and that race does not so blatantly define class here as it does in the US.

She describes her own upbringing in Boston in the 1950s as middle-class in a working-class neigbourhood where hers was the only black family. Although both her parents went to college it was still a time when a black woman, however well-educated, could not get a job as a sales assistant in a city store. Professor Williams says she was aware of racism as she grew up - "I used to define the seasons by whatever was being thrown at me, acorns in the fall and snowballs in the winter" - as her white schoolmates innocently played out what they were hearing at home.

The burgeoning civil rights movement was a defining influence on all the Williams family and she describes herself as "a baby of affirmative action". "I do not feel apologetic in the slightest for having transgressed at every step of the way the demographic expectations for my `place' or my `type' as female and black," she has written.

Now living in New York, with her adopted four-year-old son Peter, Patricia Williams hates the tag of "celebrity lawyer" she has attracted, but admits that she has courted it to some extent. Her invitation to be a Reith Lecturer, the 49th since the series began in 1948 and just the fourth woman, follows her acclaimed contributions to Radio 4 documentaries Out of Africa, and Utopia and Other Destinations.

"I have spent more time than other lawyers on `popular' journalism [television, radio, writing for newspapers and public speaking] but that is because popular understanding of these issues of race and gender is as important as any legal definitions," she says.

"We are at an important crossroads now, facing perhaps one of the bitterest battles we have ever fought. Fundamentalist beliefs of all sort are taking hold around the world...Racism is a human invention, a relatively modern one and I don't think it is inevitable. That is why I am so passionate about it."