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Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He has taught at Yale since 1982. Carter is known for his legal and social policy[…]

What cream-cheese-and-jelly sandwiches can teach you about getting along

Question: Who are you?

Stephen Carter: My name is Stephen Carter. I am the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University.

I’m from so many places. I grew up in so many places – so many different places I’m always asked if we were a military family, which we were not. We were a . . . I guess you’d say a government services family. I was born in Washington, D.C.; moved to Harlem before my second birthday; moved back to Washington in 1961. This is when I was six years old, almost seven; because my father, who had been a lawyer in New York, had gone to work in the Kennedy administration; stayed in Washington for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. And then in 1968, roughly ’69, moved to Ithaca, Ney York where I went to high school. My father was then teaching at Cornell. So although I only spent three years in Ithaca, they were my adolescent years and I tend to think of that as where I was from, even though I only spent three of my 18 formative years there.

Let me take . . . Let me think about it this way. When I was a small boy, I was not aware that our family moved around so much. Looking back on it I think we lived, in my 18 years, in something like eight or nine different houses. It was a rather remarkably itinerant journey that we had. I think that that fed in me a desire to put down roots. I knew that when I grew older, I wanted to have a family that actually lived somewhere and mainly stayed there. My years in Ithaca . . . The time I lived in Ithaca in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, though we think of it as a college town – the home of Cornell University – to me Ithaca was a small town, the kind of place where you could flag down the bus at the side of the road and they’d stop for you, and it wasn’t a bus stop. And it’d let you off wherever you wanted to get off. And if you didn’t have a quarter for the bus you could pay them next time. I tend to think of it as a small town that it’s not anymore. And I think a certain affection and respect for a lot of the values of small towns, which most African Americans don’t get to see very much of, I think I learned from those years.

When I think of the many, many people who influenced me, of course I would put my parents at the top of that list. But I want to mention one person who had an interesting affect on me when I was young. In 1966 . . . the summer of 1966 when I was, oh goodness, about to turn 12, I think, my family moved from Southwest to Northwest Washington. We moved from a mostly black neighborhood to an entirely white neighborhood. We moved from a mostly black elementary school to an entirely black junior high school. And I remember to this day all these many years later – 40 years later – I remember sitting with my brothers and sisters – there were five of us – on the front step of our new house as the movers moved in the furniture, looking up and down the street at these big houses, people passing by, none of them saying hello. I remember sitting there thinking we were gonna hate this neighborhood. And all of the sudden from across the street came this wonderful shout, “Welcome!” And it was a woman coming home from work across the street. She came over to our house a few minutes later with this huge tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Her name was Sarah Kestenbaum. She welcomed us to the neighborhood. She and our family became very good friends. She was interestingly the first Jewish person I’d ever gotten to know well in my life. And her family also gave me the first real example of my life of a deeply religious family who tried to live their religion while keeping a foot firmly grounded in the rest of the world as well. But the thing I remember most about that experience was the taste of those cream cheese and jelly sandwiches.

Recorded on: 7/25/07