Previously: Amy Tan, misandrist hero.
I did not intend to come before you today speaking of basketball; this week basketball has broken my heart. Yet the words of Michele Roberts, the new executive director of the NBA players union, have led me to love again.
She said she was all too aware that if she was selected, she would represent several hundred male athletes in the N.B.A.; she would deal with league officials and agents who were nearly all men; she would negotiate with team owners who were almost all men; and she would stand before reporters who were predominantly men.
She did not flinch. “My past,” she told the room, “is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”
And see! she stirs!
She starts,–she moves,–she seems to feel
The thrill of life along her keel–
Children, I was sleeping; children, I am awake now.
After attending public schools in the Bronx, Roberts earned a scholarship before her sophomore year of high school to attend the Masters School, a boarding school for girls in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Roberts was one of two black students in her grade, and for the first time, she felt like an outsider.
“It was actually some of the best training for my professional life,” Roberts said. “Once I realized that being different does not mean being inferior — I scoff at that nonsense if I see it.”
One of her first nights in school, Roberts and a small group of classmates were brushing their teeth before bed. One of the girls asked Roberts if she could touch her hair, and Roberts, though somewhat puzzled, agreed. Within moments, there were four girls around her, running their fingers through her Afro.
“I remember I asked Michele if she ever had to comb her hair or if it just stayed that way,” said Anne Gibson Wnorowski, a classmate. “She made it very clear to me that was a stupid question, and I think after that I didn’t talk to her for months.”
Roberts did not maintain any high school friendships after graduation. In her senior yearbook, she quoted Malcolm X and Nikki Giovanni: “Joy is finding a pregnant roach and squashing it.”
I seek only one thing now in my life — a quiet retirement from the cares of the working world, and the chance to cut my hair and rend my garments and disfigure my face, and garb myself in ashes and sackcloth, and to sit at the feet of Michele Roberts, in perfect silence and perfect trust.
She volunteered at the law office at San Quentin State Prison, where she defended men on death row in disciplinary hearings. The men often had privileges like conjugal visits taken away over minor infractions, and Roberts would argue on their behalf to get the privileges back.
“All they wanted was to be able to have sex with their girlfriends,” Roberts said. “You’d do a hearing with them, and they’d be crying like you’d gotten them their freedom.”
…Roberts defended people accused of murder and rape, weaving biblical metaphors into her arguments. She became so good, so quickly, that some other lawyers filled the benches just to watch her work.
“It was like watching a major sporting event,” said Barbara Van Gelder, a former prosecutor who went up against Roberts in a couple of trials.
Michele Roberts is the latest incarnation of Levi Yitzchak the Berdichever. It is related that one Shabbat, R. Levi Yitzchak met a Jew smoking in the street. The rabbi asked the young man if he’d forgotten that such an act is forbidden on Shabbat. The young man replied that no, he hadn’t forgotten. R. Levi Yitzchak asked if there was some circumstance causing him to sin. The young man replied that no, he was knowingly and voluntarily sinning. R. Levi Yitzchak looked up to the sky and said, “L‑rd of the Universe, see the holiness of your people! They’d rather declare themselves sinners than utter a lie!”
Standing near a window at the end of the interview, Roberts apologized to a photographer. “I don’t smile much,” she said.
Roberts can be a private person, and many of her friends were unaware that she was interviewing for the N.B.A. position.
Michele Roberts does not have friends, as mortals do. Michele Roberts has instead a soul of fire and a lime-green pencil skirt and power over the lives of men. She keeps her secrets in the skins of rabbits, which she releases in the highlands of the Orkney Islands, where they are hunted by bands of wild Picts. She will smile when this sorrowing world gives her a reason to. We have not yet earned her smiles.
[Image via the NYT and I probably don’t have the rights to reuse it idk]
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.