Raising The Bar
Jolanda Jones delivers justice and #BlackLivesMatter—Texas-style.
Jolanda Jones in her "Survivor" days.
She’s not a Mob Wife and she’s not a Real Housewife. But she is a Survivor—an alumna of the TV reality show Survivor: Palau, and also a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks. With everything real life has thrown at her, it’s a miracle that Jolanda Jones, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney and LGBT activist, is with us at all, let alone the trailblazing success she is today. Currently, she’s showcased as one of six dynamic women of color in WE TV’s new docuseries Sisters In Law.
And Jones, with her distinctive shaved head, her athletic but elegant 6-foot frame, her streetwise smarts and powerful voice, is star material. But life might have turned out quite differently for her. Jones was born into Houston’s Third Ward, considered to be one of the most economically diverse black neighborhoods in the country. Some people refer to Third Ward as a ghetto; others note that Beyoncé grew up there, but in a more upscale section of the hood. In fact, the childhoods of Bey and Jolanda were worlds apart. Growing up, Jones stared into the maw of poverty, violence, and self-destructiveness, and struggled to break a cycle that claimed the lives of many of her family members.
“My dad blew his brains out,” she reveals. “Two of my uncles killed themselves. My grandmother literally lost two sons to suicide. My brother was murdered. My aunt was murdered. I have cousins who were murdered. I’ve been shot at.”
On top of witnessing the street violence that characterizes many black working-class lives, Jones faced grinding financial worry, too. “We were always afraid of getting evicted because my mom couldn’t afford to pay the rent,” she recalls. “Our house burned down when I was in the fifth grade because we couldn’t afford electricity and we used candles. The one thing my mom was insistent upon was that she couldn’t afford to put me through college—but that my brain could. So my mother was extremely hard on me academically.”
Mrs. Jones bought her daughter books and assigned her extra homework, and Grandma Jones reinforced those rules. Trained to be a straight-A student, Jones was grounded all summer when she got her first B. “I could not go outside and play. For a tomboy, that’s the worst punishment ever. I’d look out the window that summer every day and cry.” Two more Bs earned her “whoopings.” But the outcome was positive.
“There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to be successful,” says Jones. “I think I had cousins and friends who may have doubted, but I never doubted. In fact, there was a guy I dated who was from my same neighborhood, and when I got to college first and he broke up with me, because he thought I was going to think I was better than him. All these years later, people tell me that he wishes he had had faith in me, but it’s hard, when you’re from the hood, to believe that there’s something bigger, something greater that you can achieve.”
What the disbelieving ex-boyfriend thought of Jones hardly matters now: She’s recently come out as a lesbian and is happily partnered with businesswoman and trainer Cherisse Traylor. The two women, both from Houston, have known about each other since 1982; they were best friends forever, but only became romantic partners last year.
Prior to that, Jones, while forging genuine and lifelong connections with the LGBT community, dated men, and was married to a man—who beat her. She has gone on to advocate for survivors of domestic abuse, and has raised a son, Jiovani.
As a criminal defense lawyer, Jones now defends battered women. One of her clients, who is featured on the show Sisters In Law, is a middle-aged working-class white woman who murdered her abusive male partner in what Jones believes was an act of self-defense. “I felt this pressure to represent Linda and help the courts see that it was self-defense,” says Jones. “There’s tremendous pressure when you know she’s been abused and raped by her abuser, and then the law charges her with a crime. First he victimized her and now she’s victimized by the system. It’s my hope and my prayer—though I can’t tell you what happens in the future—that I can make the world see the truth, and that is that somebody needed to die, somebody was going to die that night, and if she didn’t do what she did, it was going to be her. So he’s exactly where he needs to be.”
Due to her legal expertise on domestic violence, Jones has been asked to comment on it on TV, most recently after the Ray Rice scandal. “A lot of people don’t know they’re being abused. They don’t know the signs. When I first started dating my ex-husband, he was controlling and I didn’t realize it. He would pick at what I wore and make comments and tell me I was fat, he would tell me I was ugly, he would tell me I wasn’t smart. After I had my son, I had stretch marks and my breasts weren’t as perky, and my ex-husband would tell me that no one would want me, that I was used goods. That is abuse. I would cry and then he would rape me.
“I got accused of cheating with everybody, trying to flirt with everybody, to the point that I never went out in public because I was fearful that he would think I was making contact with somebody . . . I ended up getting my head slapped really hard in a club full of people, and he ended up apologizing and saying it would never happen again, and then it did happen again, a few more times. I got out, and I am very lucky to be alive.”
But before it turned this ugly, there were signs, she says: “Jealousy is bad—not good. When I was 24, I thought jealousy meant that somebody really loved you. Well, I now understand that jealousy is insecurity, and you’d better get out as fast as you can and run away as far as you can, because you can never please them.”
Today, Jones wants to help other women identify the warning signs of an abusive relationship, and to make men aware of what abuse is as well. To this day, however, her ex-husband maintains that they had a perfect marriage. But Jones’s son, Jio, who is now a university graduate and an activist, remembers the times that his mother was beaten and strangled as though they were everyday domestic events.
For Jones, the key to survival is self-reliance, but she also understands the importance of having a support network. “I did not make it out by myself. Some people always threw it at me that I was gonna kill myself like my daddy did, because I was just like him. At some point I just had to lean on people, so my grandmother was my life support sometimes, my aunt, my coach, sometimes my teammates, even though they didn’t know it. If my teammates had dinner at their house and I was there, it meant I would have food that night. So I used my support system, because without them I’m sure I could be on welfare, in prison, or dead, like very many people in my family.”
But today, life is good for Jones, and all is bliss in the love department. After so many years of leaning on each other for support, and sharing confidences, Jones and Traylor finally got together after each was single at the same time for the first time in 21 years. “Cherisse had said, ‘If you like Empire you should see this show Power. You can watch it on my TV. So I would come over to her place every week and watch Power. And one night I was really tired, and I didn’t feel like it was a really big deal to sleep there on the couch.”
Traylor thought that Jones was sending her a signal. Jones wondered if Traylor was flirting. Once they realized that their compatibility could be mutual attraction, they decided to try dating. “My biggest fear was screwing up a friendship with my best friend,” says Jones. But to everyone else, this seemed like a match made in heaven, and many friends had long assumed that something was going on between them. “It was really interesting that everyone else knew we should be together except us.”
The couple has plenty in common: Both have been full-scholarship college athletes (and started competing against each other in 1982), both have been TV reality contestants (Jones on Survivor, Traylor on American Gladiator), both have been businesswomen for the past 20 years, and both are strong black women committed to the dream of achieving their personal best.
But Jones’s athletic power and ambition were not enough to help her win Survivor: Palau in 2004. “I remember making it to the round where they’re deciding on the finalists, and one of the producers asked me point blank: ‘Black women on TV are portrayed as bitches, how would you feel if we portrayed you as a bitch?’ Any my answer was, ‘Well, I think that any woman under the right circumstances can be a bitch. I think all women can also be caring or helpful or mean or nice or maternal or whatever. I hope you show a well-rounded view of me.’ And of course they showed me as a bitch.”
The producers edited out footage of Jones being kind—making a tourniquet for an injured competitor; they also edited out footage of her swimming like an Olympian—because black people can’t swim, can they? “I literally swam a half-mile, but they didn’t show me swimming. And I swam it faster than white people. I realized the power of editing on Survivor.”
So when the offer to join the lineup of Sisters In Law came along, Jones was cautious: Would this be another black-women-as-bitches spectacle? Jones was a natural for the show: a community pillar in Houston, a city councilwoman, an attorney, an activist since the 1980s, and “as close to a local celebrity here as anybody.” But she had to consider her reputation and the message that she would be sending out to other women of color, whether professional or impoverished. Once she was reassured that there would be no over-the-top bitchiness, no hair-pulling or kicking, she was in. Producers wanted some drama, but mostly they wanted to focus on the legal practices of the six successful women of color: Jones, Juanita Jackson, Vivian King, Rhonda Wills, Monique Sparks, and Tiye Foley.
“I thought that was very good, very important. Because whenever you look at any of those legal shows, you always see it from the police perspective, or the prosecutor’s perspective, or the objective perspective. They always make it seem like the person they think did it did it, and the person who did it is a bad person. The truth is, sometimes people are wrongly identified and stay in prison forever. Sometimes we have innocent people who the system believes are guilty and the system goes to any means necessary to convict them. And it’s just not right. Sometimes we have people who are bad people and I think [the show] shows our struggle to deal with those cases, how hard we fight—and I think we should fight regardless. Sometimes people have a really bad impression of criminal defense lawyers. They think we’re slimeballs. They think we’re the scum of the earth, and they don’t realize our moral and ethical struggles. I think the show personalizes us—and sometimes you have good people who do bad things and sometimes you have good people who do stupid things. I think it just adds a dimension in the legal arena that we never see.”
And Sisters In Law makes an important class distinction that precious few other shows make: While Jones et al. look like a million bucks, all of them “grew up really poor,” says Jones. “All of us worked really hard, and now we’re successful—as opposed to most reality TV shows where if the woman is rich it’s because she married money or she was already wealthy. And so that’s just another reason why I agreed to do it.”
When the show began filming, Jones identified as bisexual. “I’ve dated more men than I have women. I was going through that process where I was trying to figure me out. So when they were interviewing me, they kept asking me, ‘What kind of guy do you like?’ And finally I said, ‘Dude, I’m bisexual, I’m dating a woman. Well, I now consider myself lesbian, because I believe I’ve met my soul mate. I’ve known her forever, we’ve been friends forever, so I believe I’m lesbian now because I can’t imagine dating a man anymore. And I believe that just because I was socialized to date men, that’s what I supposed I should do.. We’ll see if they show it! They followed the other women with their significant others, so I am hopeful that they will do the same with us, because we have a happy, healthy, productive, and positive relationship. We’re not the stereotypical hard thug, gold-teeth-wearing people that they generally portray black lesbians as.”
And if you think Jones is speaking out of turn about black culture and identity, nothing could be further from the truth. She is well aware of the prejudice outside the black community, and inside as well. It’s one of the reasons she’s so protective of and particular about her self-image. “I was a very awkward young girl,” she says. “I got called a bunch of names: I got called Little Black African, I got called ‘cuckabugs’ ’cause my hair is so coarse, and that’s like self-hate within the black community.” If Jones seems to act like a diva now (as Monique implies in one scene in which the women all wait for Jones to arrive for dinner), she does so from a position of strength; it’s about embracing her blackness.
“Rhonda’s very coquettish,” says Jones of her impeccably groomed, rich, femme, corporate-lawyer cast mate. “I’m very from-the-streets, I embrace the streets. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being from the ghetto. If you are not OK with people who are from the ghetto, then you’re probably not going to be OK with me, and I’m fine with that. I don’t drive a Bentley because I’m not driven by money. I don’t chase the dollar. Rhonda’s probably going to have designer clothes and I will not. I will go to whatever store I want to and throw it all together and that is what I’ll wear because that is me. If you look at me on social media, you’ll see that I often post without makeup, so I’m OK with me, but if I go to [an event] I’m going to walk in with my own style.”
Jolanda Jones Instagram
And part of her own style is her shaved head. “I’m bald by choice. I don’t have cancer—some people have asked me if I’ve had chemo. No, I just think that people’s definition of beauty probably looks like Rhonda, but I challenge the notion that in order to be beautiful you have to look European. I embrace my African. I embrace my blackness. I think it’s important, and not enough black women embrace their blackness.” When you look at Jones, what you see is real. “I’m all natural, everything you see on me. I haven’t had any work done,” says the 50-year-old.
“My aunt told me a long time ago, ‘Hair is like panties. You can change it.’ I got my hair cut off on December 11 of 2007, and the reason I know that is because the election [for City Council] was Saturday, December 8, and I won. I actually wanted to cut my hair off before that, but my advisors told me that I would scare the shit out of white people and I could not cut my hair. The barber said, ‘You’re pretty with hair,’ and I said, ‘I’ll be pretty without hair.’ ” Armed with a bold new look and an attitude to match, Jones continued fighting for her community.
In her role as city councilwoman, Jones came to the aid of transgender Nikki Araguz, after her firefighter husband, Thomas, died on duty, and she became embroiled in a legal battle over her rights. Jones says she was also the first elected official to visit Houston’s Transgender Center. “The people there were hugging me and crying because no one had ever touched them as if they were human. I pushed for an executive order, I actually wrote the executive order to include transgender people. So even though I am new to understanding I am lesbian, I was always the gayest person on the City Council. I actually always felt more comfortable in the GLBT community than in other communities. Because the GLBT community does not judge you, and very many other communities judge you. People are just free to be who they are. I love that about the community.”
And while she applauds the #BlackLivesMatter movement, she’s been engaged in her own civil rights activism for years. “I’m glad to see that the world is catching up and that people are talking about it, because I recognize in my law practice that the police stop black kids for stuff that they never stop white kids for. For example, in Houston they stop black kids for walking in the street when there is a sidewalk provided, but they don’t stop whites for jaywalking in a white neighborhood. A black kid and a white kid can be accused of the same thing and the white kid is going to get a really good deal and the black kid is not. I noticed my clients were hurting themselves because they didn’t know their rights, so I started giving know-your-rights advice. I’ve been [on TV] talking about Michael Brown, but I’ve been doing this stuff since 1999. This is not new to me. This is new to everybody else, but it’s not to new to me.”
Her own son, Jio, has been stopped countless times by the police. In one incident, he was using his mother’s car, unlocking it with her keys, when the police assumed he was breaking into the car and pulled a gun on him. “He’s always getting stopped and arrested because he’s a 6’5” black man, and of course he’s got to be a thug because that’s what 6’5” black men are. But of course you can also be a 12-year-old black boy, because that’s what happened to Tamir Rice. Because all you have to do is exist while black.”
The continued racial profiling and racism in this country concern Jones, as does the hate mongering that Donald Trump is perpetuating in his election bid. It makes for a colorful episode on the show when Katrina Pierson, the national spokesperson for the Trump campaign, attends a fundraiser Rhonda is holding at her Houston mansion for Jolanda, who is campaigning to win a place on the board of the Houston Independent School District. Rhonda and Katrina get into an unexpectedly heated political debate over Katrina’s conservative beliefs (and, it appears, her ignorance of history) as Jolanda watches, amused—and surprised. “I’m on the Democratic Executive Committee for the state of Texas, but this was a fundraiser for my school board race. And I thought that I probably shouldn’t be yelling and screaming at a fundraiser where I should have a cool head if I’m going to be elected. But I was cracking up that Rhonda was a Democrat. If I had money to bet, I would’ve bet that Rhonda was a Republican. That’s why I was laughing.”
And this moment of levity is well earned by a woman who started her legal practice in 1992, “drafting wills for people with full-blown AIDS or T-cell counts of 200 or less. I started drafting them for free.” One of the many reasons she wants to get involved in education at the school board level is to effect a better outcome for black and LGBT youth. “I have spoken to local school districts about their obligations to protect GLBT people. I’ve worked with the parents of Asher Brown [the 13-year-old Houston boy who was driven by bullies to kill himself] to help pass an anti-bullying bill through the Texas legislature. Prior to Asher killing himself, we had been unable to pass a comprehensive anti-bullying bill in Texas, and we now have Asher’s Law in Texas to protect LGBT kids.”
This is a story about Jolanda Jones, but the other five women on the show are also fascinating, and—as the show’s tagline goes—they’re “raising the bar in every way.” It’s a treat to see these strong women of color band together and fight for justice, especially in a white, male-dominated profession. And that’s a lot to be proud of.