Appreciating Our Professors: Charles L. Black

Posted on Categories Legal Education

Charles Black was a professor at Yale Law School while I was a student there, and although I never had a course with him, I would still name him as the professor who most influenced me.

During the fall of my first year, two of my best friends were assigned to Professor Black’s Constitutional Law class, and they were quite enamored with him. He was legendary to even us neophytes: a brilliant constitutional scholar, a leading light for equality in the Brown v. Board of Education case, and an outspoken critic of the death penalty. My friends reported that despite his fame, he was modest and charming, with a great sense of humor.

Time marched on until Halloween, when I, the two aforementioned women who were in Charles Black’s class, and another woman, decided that our lack of funds should not prevent us from enjoying the holiday. So the four of us pooled our resources, purchased some red poster board, black paint, and string, and proceeded to make sandwich boards of the four first year casebooks, which we then wore to go trick-or-treating in — you guessed it — Professor Black’s neighborhood. When we rang the doorbell, Charles Black appeared at the door with a bowl of candy — he just looked and acted like an ordinary guy, with his longish curly hair, craggy face, and cowboy boots worn with jeans. He was focused on the candy at first, but when he finally looked up, his eyes widened. “My Lord!” he said in his Texas drawl, “it’s my students!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he invited us inside, and pressed tumblers of scotch upon us.

He insisted that we stay and listen to some jazz with him, and he produced an original Louis Armstrong record, which he proceeded to play for us, along with commentary. I found out later that he was renowned for his knowledge of jazz, and that he attributed his early awakening on racial justice issues to his love of Louis Armstrong and his refusal to believe that Armstrong’s place in society should be in any sense second class.

I don’t recall whether I heard it that night or on another occasion at school, but Charles Black was quick to point out to anybody who would listen that he did not impart his best ideas in a classroom setting: he was first and foremost a writer. “My mind exists at the intersection of a Number 2 pencil and a legal pad,” he liked to say. I never took a class from him, but I loved to read his spare, elegant, but still passionate writing.

How did Charles Black influence me? He made me see that passion and creativity could coexist with intellectual achievement, and even improve the intellectual achievement. He proved that you could have a life and interests apart from the law. He was a wonderful example of how to use one’s intellectual ability for the good of others. He was also married to Barbara Black, herself a brilliant law professor in an era where there weren’t so many women law professors. I already desperately wanted to be a law professor and had come to Yale wondering how much of “normal life” I would have to sacrifice to have that career. Charles Black obviously believed in women law professors, and he and Barbara together showed that a person could have a spouse, children, and interests apart from work. Finally, Charles Black so clearly loved all the parts of his life, that he showed that there can be great joy in work, family, or outside interests, as long as there is joy in the person.

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