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Opinion Why Black people feel Jackson’s ‘seat at the table’ is ours, too

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on the front plaza of the Supreme Court building in D.C. after an investiture ceremony on Friday. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg News)

When you’re Black in America, you spend a lot of time counting firsts. The higher the first, the more we marvel (and shake our heads at how long it took to happen). The higher the first, the more the person who achieved it comes to represent how we want the nation to see us.

The latest vessel of our aspirations is Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman confirmed to the Supreme Court and the third Black person ever to sit on its mahogany bench. And, man, did she show up and show out during her first week at work. But the real test — for her and us — comes in all the weeks that now follow.

Jackson spoke up early during Monday’s arguments in a case challenging the Clean Water Act, asking questions before half her colleagues did and within the first 10 minutes. On Tuesday, she took the facile reasoning about laws “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” that Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. used to help overturn Roe v. Wade and turned it into a sledgehammer against Alabama’s gerrymandered congressional maps.

Jackson’s skillful questioning not only set legal Twitter aglow; it also became another item of pride for African Americans, especially Black women. “I love that Justice Jackson isn’t doing the thing that a lot of Black women are expected to do when we start a new job chock full of white folks which is to be quiet and not make a fuss. To know our place,” journalist Imani Gandy tweeted. “She’s come out SWINGING and I LOVE IT.”

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In moving remarks at a celebration at the Library of Congress a few hours after her court investiture on Friday, Jackson let the emotion flow right back. “People from all walks of life approach me with what I can only describe as a profound sense of pride and what feels to me like renewed ownership,” she said. “I can see it in their eyes. I can hear it in their voices. They stare at me, as if to say, ‘Look at what we’ve done.’ ”

Sitting in the audience, I felt those words in my bones, having both received and bestowed ones like them. You never forget how powerful such an interaction is. Jackson’s tearful comments proved her a person of enormous humility about her achievement and boundless gratitude for the outpouring of support.

But Jackson knows that bouquets today could turn into brickbats tomorrow. “There is no doubt that I will have my share of pure bad luck,” she said. Bad luck could come in many forms. I’m thinking particularly that it could manifest as other African Americans wondering why Jackson isn’t as forthright as they want her to be on issues important to them. And she probably won’t always be, so long as the law sometimes leads her as a justice to a place that doesn’t align with her preference as a person.

The worst outcome is that such judicial restraint could cause African Americans to question her Blackness altogether. When you hit certain heights, it’s bound to happen. And it will be painful.

In the new Apple TV Plus documentary “Sidney,” Oprah Winfrey recounts life-changing advice she received from revered Black actor Sidney Poitier. It was during a birthday party for Winfrey at the height of her reign as queen of daytime TV. After being at first beloved by Black audiences, she eventually found herself bedeviled by accusations that she wasn’t Black enough. Poitier, who went through the same swing in Black public sentiment, gave Winfrey an insight she said guided her ever since.

“It’s difficult when you’re carrying other people’s dreams,” Winfrey recalled the actor telling her. “And so you have to hold on to the dream that’s inside yourself. And know that if you are true to that, that’s really all that matters.” That heavy load — a burden for anyone to carry — is only weightier when you’re the first of your kind to crack the stratosphere.

The last words of Jackson’s Library of Congress speech showed that she relishes bearing our dreams. “I have a seat at the table now, and I’m ready to work,” she said to thunderous applause. If her first days on the bench are any indicator, Jackson is wasting no time being heard and representing the best of us. It’s our task to let her do it her own way.

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