The Miracle of the Black Leg

Notes on Race, Human Bodies, and the Spirit of the Law

Brilliant essays from the renowned Nation columnist—aka the Mad Law Professor—tackling questions of identity, bioethics, race, surveillance, and more

Beginning with a jaw-dropping rumination on a centuries-old painting featuring a white man with a Black man’s leg surgically attached (with the expired Black leg-donor in the foreground), contracts law scholar and celebrated journalist Patricia J. Williams uses the lens of the law to take on core questions of identity, ethics, and race.

With her trademark elegant prose and critical legal studies wisdom, Williams brings to bear a keen analytic eye and a lawyer’s training to chapters exploring the ways we have legislated the ownership of everything from body parts to gene sequences—and the particular ways in which our laws in these areas isolate nonnormative looks, minority cultures, and out-of-the-box thinkers.

At the heart of “Wrongful Birth” is a lawsuit in which a white couple who use a sperm bank sue when their child “comes out Black”; “Bodies in Law” explores the service of genetic ancestry testing companies to answer the question of who owns DNA. And “Hot Cheeto Girl” examines the way that algorithms give rise to new predictive categories of human assortment, layered with market-inflected cages of assigned destiny.

In the spirit of Dorothy Roberts, Rebecca Skloot, and Anne Fadiman, The Miracle of the Black Leg offers a brilliant meditation on the tricky place where law, science, ethics, and cultural slippage collide.

Praise

“There is an old juristic wisdom that perspicuous truths still need to be evidenced and made to appear. In The Miracle of the Black Leg, the alchemical Williams forges a unique and coruscating series of such rare insights and painful pneumatograms. Dazzling prose, pellucid reasoning, and the whetstone of wit combine to provide a meticulous history and aesthetic record of the present. In sum, crucible and pestle, a searing record of the affective polarization that scars these evanescent times.”
—Peter Goodrich, professor of law, Cardozo School of Law
“There are few writers of whom I will say ‘I will read anything she writes.’ Williams is one of those few.”
—Mari J. Matsuda, professor, University of Hawai‘i and author of Words That Wound
“Patricia Williams has masterfully meditated on the horrors emerging from an enduring legacy of sorting, selling, and packaging bodies and identities from slavery to the present, exposing the myriad ways in which the thicket of law, society, science, and medicine contribute to bruise the spirit and flesh of those most vulnerable from the start.”
—Michele Goodwin, professor of law, Georgetown Law, host of the podcast On the Issues with Michele Goodwin, and author of Policing the Womb
“Ever since The Alchemy of Race and Rights, I have been enchanted by the elegance of Williams’s writing and her needlepoint analysis of contemporary life in race. With The Miracle of the Black Leg she opens another treasure chest of breathtaking historical and contemporary detail.”
—Anna Deavere Smith, actress, playwright, and professor, NYU
“Patricia Williams never fails to deliver incisive critiques of the complex ways that race, gender, law, capitalism, and culture shape our understandings of, and responses to, our world. This book is no exception.”
—Michelle Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of The New Jim Crow
“With her incisive brilliance and stunning legal imagination, Patricia Williams yet again proves herself to be one of the sharpest thinkers on race and the law in our nation’s history. Law is at the center of our contemporary national crises, and Williams takes us on a journey deep into the history of cases and doctrine to understand how we got here and why ideas about what law can and should be matter for all of us who believe in freedom. ”
—Imani Perry, New York Times bestselling author of South to America
The Miracle of the Black Leg is a beautifully written, haunting book. In this ’purportedly color-blind time,’ Patricia Williams shows us a present that preserves the worst of the past, when a militarized citizenry and seemingly insurmountable libertarianism threaten minorities, women, and indigents. Deeply and passionately—with an often-searing wit—she moves us beyond the legacy of slavery to where a miracle of healing might take place: a saving cure for the enormous violence of ‘separate but equal,’ civil death, and dispossession. Fusing the historic and the imaginative, The Miracle of the Black Leg reorients how we think about the present and gives us hope for the future.”
—Colin Dayan, author of The Law Is a White Dog and In the Belly of Her Ghost
“At a time when Critical Race Theory has become a target of neofascist attacks, Patricia Williams’s new book is essential reading for our collective sanity. Ignoring these shrill polemics, her wistful, first-person musings about bodies and body parts, legs, sperm, and DNA, continue her long-term effort to dissect the alchemy of race and rights. Her narrative gift and finely chiseled style will help a wide audience understand the political tension inherent in the law, and in our societies, between reifying and humanizing logics.”
—Éric Fassin, professor of sociology, Université Paris 8 Vincennes, Saint-Denis
“With The Miracle of the Black Leg, Patricia Williams once again invites us into her magnificent mind with a dazzling meditation on race, property, contract, bioethics, technology, public health, guns, and more. Readers will be inspired by the singularity of Williams’s brilliance. This book is a reminder that Williams is one of the most important legal scholars of our time.”
—Khiara Bridges, professor of law, UC Berkeley School of Law
“Patricia Williams has produced a brilliant explication of an evolving pas de deux between contract law and constitutional law—and how a better understanding of its continually unfolding relationship can illuminate and overturn what you thought you knew about property and ownership—your own body parts (limbs, sperm and eggs, DNA) to your firearms and your privacy. With AI looming over the next decade like an approaching dark cloud, this is a major contribution to the national dialogue.”
—Troy Duster, chancellor’s professor and senior fellow, UC Berkeley
“With her always stunning analyses of seemingly ordinary stories and the surprising connections she draws, Patricia Williams urges us to understand deeply and differently how our histories continue to produce us and how we might begin to dismantle ideas and structures so utterly dependent on our intellectual passivity.”
—Angela Y. Davis, professor, UC Santa Cruz, and author of Women, Race, and Class
“Only Patricia Williams could talk about amputations, contractual necronomics, body parts floating in nitrogen, colonial scars, and horrific racial and gender violence and still manage to be potently poetic, lucidly fluid, sensorially seductive. The central question of the book is nothing less than ‘What is a body?’ and further, where does a body start and end, who owns it, how does it extend in time and space, and what difference does race, class, and geography make? Despite the seismic political consequences of Williams’s rationale for such things as the new technology-mediated posthuman (that we all are), the postcolonial more-than-human, and the deeply misunderstood nonhuman, the thinking process is soft yet politically programmatic, inviting yet relentless, never presuming familiarity with the issues and always landing the reader in often astonishing anecdotes from everyday culture.”
—Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, professor of law, University of Westminster, and director of the Westminster Law & Theory Lab
“[A] whip-smart collection. . . . Writing in high literary style, Williams pokes at the tender spots in America’s psyche.”
Publishers Weekly
“Erudition, style, and common sense—wisdom, even—ground the fire that drives these remarkable essays, a fire they cannot but kindle in their readers.”
—Lewis Hyde, cultural critic and author of The Gift
“From the renowned legal scholar comes a stunning meditation on how we have assembled ourselves in the project of America’s racialized democracy. Patricia Williams’s powerful new work The Miracle of the Black Leg is a prompt to consider the most vital topics of our day.”
—Sarah Lewis, founder, Vision & Justice, and professor of history of art, Harvard University
“Patricia Williams’s The Miracle of the Black Leg is itself a wondrous miracle—a beautiful and poetic prosthesis, a kind of third leg which can support us as we imagine how to best stand up for rights and justice in a world in which, without her example, we would be even less provided for. Williams remains one of our most precious resources for thinking and acting in different and even magically transformative ways.”
—Eduardo Cadava, Philip Mayhew professor, Princeton University
“No one in the world has captured life under the law quite like Patricia Williams. Her uncanny analyses and graceful maneuvers through the weirdest dregs of history, politics, and culture have a way of reenchanting even these darkest of times. Her prose, haunting and revelatory, ethical and droll, is a heady pleasure. This newest collection of essays is a gift, a testament, a wondrous act of restitution.”
—Sherally Munshi, professor of law, Georgetown Law

News and Reviews

New York Review of Books

Read an excerpt from The Miracle of the Black Leg in the New York Review of Books.

Goodreads Reviews