Remembering Derrick Bell: A Legal Lion
I arrived at Riverside Church slightly after six o clock and hoped they were operating on CP time. Luckily the memorial was just getting underway when I walked into the magnificent sanctuary, whose Gothic architecture owes so much to Paris’ Notre Dame. Built by John the Baptist Rockefeller, it was intended as a smack in the face to the blue blooded Anglophillic WASP elite who attended church a few blocks away in the Cathedral of St. John The Divine.
I expected the event to be held in one of the meeting rooms for a relatively small crowd of activists, friends and intellectuals, because even great scholars rarely have large followings. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to find a packed sanctuary. It didn’t take long to see that everybody in this audience knew Professor Bell’s work and deeply admired him. After listening to the testimony of Derrick Bell’s students and colleagues, it was clear that I was witnessing a love fest of rare gravitas.
I don’t know what percentage of the audience were lawyers, but the legal profession was well represented. Quite a few of the lawyers were Professor Bell’s former students. One by one they testified to his brilliance, courage, unshakable integrity and commitment to his students.
The person that emerged was not only a towering intellect and innovative teacher, but a rare soul who may pass our way once in a century, a kind of father confessor and secular priests who treated the practice of law as a sacred calling; a true Christian who tried to heed the charge of Jesus Christ to minister unto the least among us. Hence it is no accident that Derrick Bell chose to specialize in Constitutional Law as his area of interests, both as litigator and scholar; for it is in this arena where the laws are crafted that determine our life’s chances.
Like his mentors Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the towering figures in shaping American Civil Rights law, Professor Bell was committed to training a cadre of young lawyers who would carry on the fight into the future. In spite of the great changes he had witnessed in the legal status of Afro-Americans, much of which he helped bring about with his brilliant and fearless litigation in the deep south, Professor Bell remained skeptical about the intentions of white America and became more and more convinced that anti-black racism is so deeply entrenched in American culture it will remain a permanent feature of American life….no
That’s because racism’s function is to justify white privilege. Yet we were repeatedly told by his students, black and white, that it is a mistake to view the Professor as a pessimist; they assure us that he was just keepin it real. And all attributed their life as successful lawyers to the agency of their great friend and mentor.
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One after the other Professor Bell’s students mounted the podium and sang his praises. In a series of highly intelligent, elegantly written, eloquently delivered testimonials that combined pathos and bathos in splendid balance as they painted a portrait of a brilliant legal scholar with the instincts of a saint. They also made the case that his scholarship has defined the field of race and the law in American society. He is the father of a school of law known as Critical Race Theory – which claims some of the most brilliant legal minds in the nation – and his oeuvre is the brook of fire through which all Civil Rights lawyers must pass.
From his 1973 Magnum Opus Race, Racism, and American Law, to his learned 1980 treatise Brown V. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma, a reassessment of the significance of that landmark 1954 decision desegregating the schools; to his fictional narratives in which the law professor employed the novelist’s tools to illuminate the problems of race he sought to remedy by the application of law. And then there were his poignant essays.
One of my favorites is an essay in Gospel Choirs, in which Bell describes the marvelous spectacle of Afro-American women dancing the “Electric Slide,” that highly stylized line dance that is a staple at parties of the black bourgeoisie. In this essay, as in much of his non-legal writings, Derrick Bell expressed his deep love for Afro-Americans and their culture; he was immersed in that culture even as he moved in the most rarified circles of the white intellectual elite. In fact, it was a source of strength to him; the gift that never stopped enriching his life….and ours.
In the writings of Derrick Bell there is an ongoing celebration of the strength and beauty of black America that one finds in the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Sonya Sanchez, Amiri Baracka, et al.
His works exhibit the same combination of race pride and spiritual gravitas one finds in the folkloric studies and novels of Zora Neal Hurston, the sociology, fiction, poetry and essays of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois – especially The Souls of Black Folk – the brilliant essays of Albert Murray bursting with the wit and joi de vivre of Afro-American culture; the epic text of Isabelle Wilkerson which fairly bursts with black love as she chronicles how black folks left the cotton fields of the south and transformed the nation for the better. It is the same race proud love one hears in the elegant tone poems of Duke Ellington ala “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Black, Brown and Beige Suite.” That’s the kind of love and celebration of black America that I feel in the work of Derrick Bell.
His students and colleagues repeatedly noted Bell’s constant reference to Afro-American folk wisdom, history, music, and favorite biblical passages in his learned legal arguments. We also learned that the Professor understood music and could sing on key. There seemed to be no end to the virtues of this remarkable man, and none seem to appreciate them more than his former students and colleagues. Eloquence and brilliance were common fare in their testimony from John Sexton, Bell’s former student who is now President of NYU, to Charles Ogletree, the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard – one of the nation’s premier Constitutional scholars and tutor of the brilliant Barack Obama.
One of the most interesting anecdotes in an evening rife with gripping anecdotes was Professor Ogletree’s recollection of Barack calling Derrick Bell “the Rosa Parks of the legal profession” because of his refusal to go along with the racist practices of American law schools with regard to hiring black female faculty. It is difficult to select particular speakers for special accolades when confronted with such an embarrassment of riches. Nevertheless Professors Patricia Williams, Keith Boykin and Charles Ogletree deserve special mention. Author of the Remarkable text “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” Patricia William’s gift for language enables her to turn a treatise on some ponderous arcane legal subject into poetry.
Her tribute to Professor Bell was a carefully crafted eulogy that blurred the lines between prose and poetry, epic mythmaking and solid history, all in the service of a greater truth. Professor Boykin’s tribute was transcendent, buoyed both by his exquisite command of English composition and his eloquent testimony about how Derrick Bell not only provided a splendid education in the law, but went far beyond the call of duty by standing up for his rights as a gay black man.
Charles Ogeltree, the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law at Harvard, who was first a student then a colleague of Derrick Bell at Harvard, knew the great man best. When he shared personal and professional memories with us in a rich baritone voice that easily employed all the “devices of eloquence” James Weldon Johnson heard in the sermons of Afro-American preachers, no one with half a heart could remain unmoved.
Among the myriad accolades heaped upon the Professor was a constant reference to the fact that Derrick Bell had walked away from a tenured Professorship from Harvard Law, because they would not award a professorship to a woman of color. And he resigned as Dean of the University of Oregon’s law school for the same reason. The feelings of all who heard these heroic stories were summed up in the comment of yet another of his former students: “Who does something like that?”
No ordinary man for sure. It was his constant championing of the interests of women that brought the feminist writer/activist Gloria Stienam out to add a white feminist voice to the swelling chorus of praise songs to the dearly departed legal lion. I doubt that in a thousand speeches she could muster greater eloquence. The poet/scholar/publisher Dr. Kaki Madhibuti flew in from Chi-town and read a poem crafted for the occasion. It was Homeric in its grandeur as he captured in verse the meaning of the fantastic Odyssey that was the life of Derrick Bell, and the bard recited it with flawless eloquence.
The evening was a tribute worthy to a great soul. Derrick’s sons, Douglass DuBois Bell and Carter Robeson Bell – who are named after black heroes of our freedom struggle, which the Professor correctly concluded is the central theme of our history – read from some of his important letters, including his letter to the Dean of the Harvard Law School stating his intention to leave. As I listened to this remarkable epistle, a singular act of principle which is sui generis for Harvard Law Professors, I was reminded of that scurrilous essay by Stanley Crouch, “Dumb Bell Blues,” in which Crouch not only questions Professor Bell’s integrity but ridicules his heroism. He accused the Professor in print of simply “grandstanding!”
Ever since I first read that essay by my ambitious ex-friend, a black writer who has received the highest honors from the Euro-American literati, I suspected it was motivated by a profound sense of self-loathing inspired by the knowledge that he is an intellectual quisling, a fraud, what the old foks in Florida used to call “an ass kissing white folks nigger,” who is willing to buck dance on the graves of our ancestors for the fool’s gold of white adulation.
Alas, it is a pathological pattern of behavior that I have come to believe is the result of a deep seated inferiority complex. If the man hates himself….how can he love us? In any case, the late great jurist /poet Bruce Wright wrote a line that perfectly characterizes people like Crouch, Cain and Clarence Uncle Justice Thomas. I would like to paraphrase it here: They are pious whores who denounce sin though do it well!
By the end of the program everyone understood that one of the mightiest trees in our forest had fallen, and this nation will be the worse for it. Suddenly we heard what sounded like the voice of God…it seemed to descend from the sky high ceiling and slowly engulf the room. It satisfied my soul and made my spirit dance.
It was the great dramatic soprano Jessye Norman, Prima Donna Absoluta of the Wagnarian Opera, singing the most soulful version I have ever heard of Amazing Grace. It had the power to move even a wretch like me to tears….. as I bade this great man of the people hail and farewell. We shall not soon see his like again!
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Dr Haki Mhadibuti
Judge Robert Carter
Close Colleague of Derrick Bell and friend of the Powerless
By: Playthell Benjamin
Harlem New York
November 5, 2011
****All Photographs by John Brathwaite
****** Except for the pictures of John Hamilton Huston and Turgood Marshall
******* Picture of Judge Robert Carter by: Playthell Benjamin