Thursday, October 06, 2011

Remembering Derrick Bell

Derrick Bell
I have been fortunate over the years to interact directly with some very extraordinary people, whose vision and generosity stamped something indelible on me, and one of these was Derrick Bell (1930-2011), who passed away yesterday.  At the time of his death he was a visiting professor of law at New York University, where he had taught for nearly two decades, but long before that he had repeatedly taken courageous stands and stood on principle when, given his keen intellect and well of charisma, social expediency and conformity could easily have paved his route to wealth and success.

For example: in 1959, Bell, who had only recently graduated from the prestigious University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1957 and was the only African American working in the US Justice Department at the time, refused to resign his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which his bosses thought might compromise his objectivity, or call into question that of the Justice Department, and instead quit his job.  Or: in 1961, after taking a job with the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he supervised the legal aspect of James Meredith's attempts to enroll in and eventual admission to the University of Mississippi, in 1962.

And: in 1980, Derrick Bell, after having taught at Harvard Law School since 1969, where he became that institution's first tenured African American law professor, left to become the dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. He resigned from his Oregon post in a dispute over the lack of faculty diversity.  He subsequently returned to Harvard in 1986, where he staged a 5-day sit-in in his office to protest HLS's denial of tenure to 2 junior colleagues who were working in what would later become the widely disseminated "critical legal studies" methodology. And again: in 1990, after taking account of HLS's dismal record of hiring and tenuring women and people of color, Bell announced that he was taking an unpaid leave of absence until the school appointed a woman of color to its tenured ranks. When he did not return from his protest leave, having taken a temporary position at NYU Law school, HLS dismissed him, in 1992.  Harvard would not hire a tenured woman of color to its law school ranks until 1998, when it appointed civil rights attorney and former University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Lani Guinier.

During my stint at NYU's Faculty Resource Network, I had the opportunity to work with Professor Bell, who graciously agreed to lead a seminar for the faculty members participating in this academic development program from smaller local and national institutions, including a number of historically black colleges and universities, and Hispanic/Latino-serving colleges and universities. Not only was he a pleasure to deal with, but he made it clear that he saw his role as facilitating knowledge exchange with fellow scholars. The enthusiasm that all the participants of his seminar expressed before it began and after it concluded was a summer highlight. Though he often spoke softly, he had a galvanizing voice and manner, and his innovative, insightful mode and manner of thought, his courage and conviction, and his gentleness and kindness kindled in whatever he was talking about. I never had the opportunity to study with him, but I was able to take his measure and have considered him a model of what a professor, a scholar and a public intellectual might be. Everyone I know who studied under him sang his praises, and working with him, I got to see why.

Derrick Bell's books include Race, Racism and American Law (Little Brown & Co. 6th ed., 2008, original ed., 1973); Silent Covenant: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (Oxford University Press, 2004); Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth (Bloomsbury, 2002); Afrolantica Legacies (Third World Press, 1998); Constitutional Conflicts (Anderson Press, 1997); Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor (Beacon Press, 1996); Gospel Choirs (1996); Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992); and And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1992).

His passing is a great loss. RIP, Derrick A. Bell Jr.

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