Jackelin Brooks believes that black youth need more black role models.
Brooks attended a predominantly black grade school on the West Side where she and other students held books “like they were birds” so they wouldn’t fall apart. She was one of few African Americans in her high school. Brooks remembers how white students in passing cars sprayed beer on her while she waited for the bus. She identified her locker by the “G” spray-painted on it. It was part of the larger word “Nigger”–”one letter per locker, six lockers long.
Later, after graduating from high school and earning her paralegal certificate from Roosevelt University, Brooks interned with the Cook County Public Defender’s Office for two summers.
Brooks saw that all the lawyers, judges and policemen she worked with were white, but all the defendants were black. She said lawyers asked her to interview black defendants because they seemed more comfortable talking to her. The mother of one defendant told Brooks, “I knew you would help me, because you’re like me.”
“Then I thought that she’s right–”I am like her. We’re both black women,” Brooks said.
The realization stuck with her when she enrolled as a law and criminal justice major at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1995.
At first, Brooks didn’t see any black professors. Her classes, mainly taught by white men, sometimes addressed crime in African American neighborhoods. She felt guilty for being black, and felt that others expected her to speak on behalf of other African Americans. She felt that she couldn’t, and that the professors and other students wouldn’t understand.
“To me it seemed like the white students were smarter in how they spoke and the words they said and how they would answer questions and build an argument,” she said later. So she didn’t talk.
This semester, it was different. Brooks took a class with her first black female professor, Valerie C. Johnson.
“I was amazed when she walked in–”that she was going to be the teacher. Like, –˜Oh my God, I got one, finally!'” she said.
Johnson knew what she was talking about when she addressed African American issues, Brooks said, because she shares that background and continues to work in the area. That makes both black and white students take her seriously, she added.
Brooks credits Johnson with motivating her. “The things she says, it just makes me want to scream out, because it’s things that I feel and that we discuss at our home with my family,” Brooks said. “It makes a difference in my study pattern, and the way I now do my papers and everything because it’s like I want to make her proud of me, so I want to study even harder and be prepared in class when she asks a question.”
Brooks, who will graduate in May, is now preparing to apply to law school. She also wants to be a professor.
“If you don’t see someone who looks like you doing something, you really believe that you can’t do it,” she said.