Metamorphosis: A Minority Professor’s Life

Richard Delgado - University of Alabama School of Law
Vol. 53
Page 1

This article is a dark, semi-autobiographical takeoff on a famous novel by Franz Kafka. I use the predicament of Gregor, the central character in The Metamorphosis, as a thematic metaphor to explain a series of events in the life of an outwardly successful man of color teaching law. It proceeds in a series of 37 short vignettes told in the course of a bedside conversation in which my young firebrand Rodrigo turns tables on his usual foil and straight man, “the Professor,” and asks him a few questions about his life and career. Until now, the two had focused on the young man’s ideas and prospects. In an expansive mood, with nothing better to do, the Professor spills the beans. What emerges is a tragicomic description of a middle-aged academic who has come to realize, with a shock, that he is undergoing a jaw-dropping transformation.

For the analytically inclined, the story’s prime lesson is that just as race is a social construction, the self-concept and even the soma of a person of color are functions of thousands of racially inflected interactions with fellow humans beginning at an early age. The arrow of social construction, in other words, works both ways, not one. Literature shows this as well.

Second, minorities who succeed by the standards of their profession face increasing pressure to revert to their rightful places on the evolutionary scale. Kafka’s book shows how this can happen, and the Professor’s tale does so as well in a modern setting.

The moral for minorities is that the struggle to preserve one’s personhood and self-regard must be valiant and unceasing. For well-meaning white allies, the effort on our behalf needs to be so as well.
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