By JoAnn Wypijewski, President of Kopkind Board of Directors
Pam came into our lives first as a Kopkind ‘camper’, in 2001. She was an activist lawyer, deeply involved in movements for reproductive rights, clinic defense and the rights of people with AIDS. She was a scholar of women’s reproductive freedom and black emancipation, and merged both histories in her work by focusing on the experiences of black women. She was a diva, a pro-sex feminist, a sister whose wicked sense of humor was matched by her generosity of thought and care – a beautiful, bouyant soul.
Pam got her first taste of Kopkind, and she never left. She came to Vermont frequently as a guest, giving one daytime talk in 2004 on the history of slave breeding and her analysis of the Thirteenth Amendment as a constitutional basis for reproductive freedom that wowed everyone present, including the venerable Jack O’Dell, who told us later that coming to Kopkind was one of the best things he’d ever done, in part because listening to Pam that afternoon had blown open an entirely new door of perception. In 2006 Pam was back as one of the mentors for a camp on the theme of the law, the left and the state. Lisa Burriss, who was 24 when she participated in that year’s camp, told us recently of how formative that experience had been, how it still inflects her thinking, how in a profound sense Pam “showed me what it means to be a woman, a black woman, committed and confident.”
Professionally, while a professor at the American University Washington College of Law, Pam was among a group of pioneering lawyers and law professors interested in exploring the relationship between law, culture and hip hop. Beginning in 2009 she contributed to HipHopLaw.com and presented scholarship at the annual conference of the Society of American Law Teachers, the largest organization of progressive law teachers in the country.
She organized and worked with law students from various student groups and her popular culture and the law seminar at AU to prepare one of the early symposia on the subject. In its first year the Roots and Reality symposium explored the connection between grassroots organizing and social justice lawyering. In its second year, it brought together lawyers, law students, activists, scholars and artists to examine the relationship between their work, hip hop culture and social justice theory. A critical reader titled Hip Hop and the Law, which she co-edited with andre douglas pond cummings and Donald F. Tibbs, will be published later this year.
Pam was about 39 when she was first diagnosed with cancer, and 45 when she died. The metaphors of cancer as a war, a battle, a fight, are so common as to be cliché, and true for that even if irritating from overuse. Pam didn’t resort to those metaphors much, but she expressed them in tenacity, willfulness and remarkable strength in the face of this cussed disease. She was graceful; she was gracious. The home that she made with her husband, our friend Kweku Toure, in Washington, DC, was a place of love and warmth, great fires and genuine fun in hard times. She held court from a hospital bed as easily as from a seminar table or hot tub at Kopkind – the back of her hand pressed against her brow, head tilted, a kind of announcement of thought before the words came sharp and precise. Pam made life a performance in the best sense, vivid and surprising.
Shortly before she died, heavily medicated against the pain, she wanted to hear about the protests in New York and chimed in, “I marched for about two blocks, but then I got tired and went back to the hotel— oh, what am I saying?” A wave of her long, lovely hand, a light laugh: she dreamt of demonstrating when most people would have given up. We loved her and are grateful to have had her love. Our sympathies are with Kwe and all whose life she touched.
There will be a memorial service for Pam in Washington later in January. We will update this notice when details are set.
Kopkind Board Member Dottie Morris has made a donation to Kopkind in Pam’s memory. If you would like to do so, we will have a list of those who have done so on our website at the time of Pam’s memorial service. You can go to Donate button on this site to make your contribution this week.