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Talking Back

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Arthenia Hall could hardly wait to meet Lani Guinier at Borders Books in Philadelphia. “She’s such a good example,” says Hall, a journalist in her mid-30s. “She always has composure and stays positive. You never see her nervous or crying.”

Five years ago, Guinier, 48, had plenty to cry about when her Yale Law School pal Bill Clinton tapped her to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Suddenly, Guinier, who had been teaching at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school for five years, found herself in an ugly battle over her nomination. During her 36-day ordeal, conservatives called the voting rights expert “Loony Lani” and “Quota Queen” because of her academic writings about increasing minority participation in government. Even worse, the White House forbade her to answer the mounting criticism, which The Washington Post called a “gruesome Washington spectacle of anonymous stiletto thrusts.” Then Clinton abruptly withdrew her nomination, and he hasn’t spoken to her since.

Today, Guinier has bounced back from her bad date with the Clinton Administration. This month she joins the faculty at Harvard Law School, where she is the first black woman named to a tenured professorship in the school’s 181-year history. And she has finally answered her critics in a book, Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice (Simon & Schuster). As Guinier signed copies for 200 admirers at Borders, many of them hugged and congratulated her for keeping her dignity despite public attacks.

“She got shabby, shabby treatment,” says Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming who now directs the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “She’s a really spirited lady and full of energy,” he says. “They’ll love her at Harvard.”

They did not always love her black father. Ewart Guinier, a Jamaican immigrant who died in 1990, attended Harvard from 1929 to 1931 but wasn’t allowed to live on campus and wasn’t called on in class. Broke and dispirited, he dropped out. (In 1969, with advanced degrees from Columbia University and New York University, he returned to Harvard as chairman of Afro-American Studies.) Guinier is especially proud of the time Ewart, a civil rights activist, stood up to a U.S. senator who told him to lower his voice during a 1948 committee hearing. “I think that this committee ought to show a little more consideration for the democracy that Negroes are denied,” he said.

Guinier dedicates her book to her parents, who met in Honolulu in the 1940s, when her white Jewish mother, Eugenia, now 80, was a Red Cross volunteer and Ewart a labor organizer. Lani feels her mother’s family in Long Island never fully accepted her and her three sisters. She writes that her beloved Grandpa Phil often said, while bathing her as a child, “I don’t know what it is; I scrub and scrub. You are still dirty.” She adds, “He wasn’t malicious. He was making an observation from his limited perspective, but it hurt, nevertheless.”

At 12, Guinier chose her future calling after she watched civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley on TV escorting a black student, James Meredith, through a jeering white crowd to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962. “She was determined,” Guinier recalls.

A graduate of Radcliffe College and Yale Law School, Guinier followed Motley’s model, working from 1981 to 1988 as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In 1986 she married Nolan Bowie, now 54, who soon will join the Kennedy School of Government as a senior fellow; they have a son, Nikolas, 11, with whom they enjoy bike riding and in-line skating. Guinier’s experience, says Nolan, “drew us closer together as a family.”

As she begins her life’s next chapter, Guinier recalls telling a psychology professor who once came to hear her speak that her nomination felt like “my worst nightmare come true, that I was publicly humiliated.” “Well, now you’re cured,” he said. “You experienced your worst nightmare and survived.” She closes her eyes for a moment and adds, “The power comes from moving on, from choosing to move forward.”

Christina Cheakalos

Elizabeth McNeil in Philadelphia