A KEEPER OF THE WORD: SELECTED WRITINGS OF WILLIAM STRINGFELLOW (1994) (Ed. Bill Wylie Kellerman)

Given the widespread neglect by established society, including the legal profession, of the outcasts, and particularly the outcasts of the urban slums, how does one begin, as a person and as a lawyer, to reach and serve these people?

***

My own recollection is of having no particular rules or strategy about how to be accepted, trusted, and thus used as a lawyer in Harlem. If I had any rules or deliberate tactics, they were very simple. I decided in advance that I would speak to no one, take no initiative in making a relationship with anyone, but just live there as long as I had to until I was noticed and until someone sought me out. It is true that I had both the advantage and disadvantage of coming to the neighborhood, initially, under the patronage of the East Harlem Protestant Parish. That meant that through the parish and its staff I met a certain number of people fairly quickly and easily. But, mainly, I was on my own. And I decided that I would make no independent overture to anyone, for after all I was the outsider, entering, probably intruding, upon the lives of these people, and if they would welcome me and accept me, that was up to them. There was nothing I could or should do, apart from just being myself and being present among them day after day.

For quite a long time - for two or three months - I did not speak to anyone, nor did anyone speak to me, though I saw many people from the block and the neighborhood and though they recognized and watched me.

Then, one night a boy called Monk came to see me. I had seen him before around the block and knew that he was the war counselor of one of the gangs. He said he had heard that I was living in the neighborhood and that I was a lawyer, and he said that a friend of his was in trouble with the law and he wanted to ask me a few questions. I welcomed him. We had some beer and talked. It quickly became apparent that his friend with the legal problem did not exist. This was just a story, an excuse by which the boy could come to see me and talk with me and, I suppose, size me up. He stayed about three hours and we talked about many things. We got along fine. The next morning I walked over to Hell Gate post office, about twelve blocks away, and as I went back to 100th Street, I was stopped and greeted by ten or twelve of the boys who were on the street. They were friendly and knew my name and told me theirs. After our meeting the previous night, Monk evidently had vouched for me.

Thereafter I felt welcome on the street, spent more time there, and many of the people - not only the boys, but some of the older people - would wait around until I came along to discuss legal matters of all sorts, as well as gossip about the news and happenings of the neighborhood. The street became as much of an office as I ever had in Harlem.

The street is perhaps an unorthodox place to counsel clients, but whatever the inconveniences of such a practice, there were advantages as well. For one thing the overhead was very low. Moreover, I admit enjoying the freedom of wearing chinos and sneakers while practicing law. I remember one afternoon going to the northern part of East Harlem to visit an old woman who was having difficulties with the welfare authorities. The matter took several hours to settle, and by the time I was returning to East 100th Street, it had turned rather cold. I had gone out in the afternoon, when it was warmer, dressed only in a shirt, chinos, and sneakers, but now that the weather had changed, I was shivering from the cold. About two blocks from my tenement, a boy I knew, who had been loafing on the corner, called out that he wanted to ask me something. As we talked he saw that I was freezing to death and so he took off his jacket and gave it to me to wear. The boy is an addict and I happened to know that the clothes on his back were virtually the only ones he had - he had pawned everything else. Sometimes, when his clothes were being laundered, he would have to stay in the house because he had nothing else to wear, unless he could borrow something from someone. But he saw that I was cold and gave me his jacket.

***

The cases that arise in a law practice such as this are usually acutely personal: family squabbles, truancy, desertions, addiction, abandoned children, gang fights, evictions, securing repairs or heat or light from a slum landlord, intervening with the welfare investigators, legitimizing children, stopping repossession of furniture, complaining about police abuse of persons arrested.

To practice law in Harlem requires more than a professional identification with these kinds of cases. It involves more than knowledgeability about the neighborhood, and something different from just sympathy for the people of the ghetto. Humanitarian idealism is pretentious in Harlem and turns out to be irrelevant. It is, rather, more important to experience the vulnerability of daily life. It is necessary to enter into and live within the ambiguity and risk the attrition of human existence. In a way, it is even more simple than that: it is just essential to become and to be poor.

***

In some situations, I suppose that it might be possible for a lawyer simply to be a technician, but cases in Harlem almost invariably require face-to-face encounter with a client. For that communication, it is important to have known clients as persons before the case arose, to have seen or met or talked with them around the neighborhood, to have accepted them and to have been accepted by them, to have lived in the same place and similar circumstances as their own, and to expect continued relationships after the particular case, as such, is closed.

***************************************************************************************************

The meeting had been called to consider whether something might be done to expose and oppose police brutality in Harlem. There had been a noticeable increase in the number of incidents reported that summer, and the people of the community were provoked, angry, and restive.

About thirty people had been asked to the meeting. Some were clergymen, others journalists, some represented civil rights organizations, and some were attorneys. All, as it happened, were Negroes, except for myself.

I was late arriving at the meeting, which was held in central Harlem, having been in court all morning on a case, by coincidence, involving police abuse.

Most of those present were friends - by now we had worked together in a variety of matters and we knew and trusted each other. There were two persons present whom I had not yet met.

The chairman of the meeting interrupted the discussion when I came in and introduced me to the two to whom I was a stranger.

"This is Bill Stringfellow," she said, "he's a lawyer over in East Harlem. I've known him for five years.

"It's safe for us to talk in front of him."

******************************************************************************