Derrick Bell (Nov. 6, 1930 - Oct. 5, 2011) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to proud but impoverished working class parents; Derrick Bell, a mild mannered but thoughtful young dreamer ended up making history as much more than just a devoted law professor and bestselling author.
While the world was used to fiery, gospel-inflected "race men" with fists poised to shake equality from the heavens what they hadn't seen much of were classy, casual, intellectual, highly skilled and seemingly dispassionate social thinkers men whose hearts and souls were not only firmly and irrevocably planted in the African Diaspora, but equally entrenched in the economic and social need for Pro Black Discourse in academia and world politics. No small feat when one thinks of all the non-threatening 'white sensitive' black men that litter schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale and even many of the historically black colleges today.
Alas, Derrick Bell was not just black in color. He was black in purpose, black in intent and true to himself and the needs of his people and his people's reality.
In 1973, he authored what has become a standard text of all American law schools, the groundbreaking Race, Racism and American Law. In 1985 he was bestowed the Teacher of the Year Award by the Society of American Law Schools. And as mentioned earlier, in 1992, he was kicked out of Harvard for being one of the few men since Frederick Douglass to stand up solely, and without hesitation or personal gain, for the rights of minority women when he demanded that a minority woman be given voice and presence in the law faculty.
On top of all that, Derrick Bell became a hero to minions of young and seemingly invisible new age Americans many of whom, like myself, were black and female and had no access to higher education no matter how intelligent or hopeful we were. These people found inspiration in the literary writings of Derrick Bell, losing themselves in powerful novels and story collections of which the titles themselves told of our struggle Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992). And We Are Not Saved (1987). Gospel Choirs' (1996). Ethical Ambition: A Life of Meaning and Worth (2002).
Clearly, emphatically and without reproach or fear, Derrick Bell has spoken up truthfully and heroically as not just an American or a human being which just about anybody can lay claim to but identifiably as a proud black man, an uncompromising representative of black people and their reality, a devoted husband, a competent, caring father and a teacher of the law of the land both understanding and perpetuating the tenets of justice, morality and the preservation of the human spirit.
Derrick Bell lives in New York with his beautiful wife Janet and is a
visiting Professor at New York University's School of Law. His book, Silent Covenants, an acclaimed exploration of the landmark Brown decision
(Oxford University Press).
When the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in 1954, many civil rights advocates believed that the decision could become the Holy Grail of racial justice. Fifty years later, despite its legal irrelevance and the persistence of segregated and ineffective public schooling for most black children, Brown is still viewed by many as the perfect precedent. Derrick Bell here shatters this shining image of one of the Court's most celebrated rulings. What, Bell asks, if the Court had written a very different decision? What if "separate but equal" had been retained, rather than overturned? He notes that prior to Brown and despite the onerous burdens of segregation, many black schools functioned well and racial bigotry had not rendered blacks a damaged race. And while Brown recognized racial injustice, it left racial barriers intact. Given what we now know about the pervasive nature of racism, the Court might better have determined -- for the first time -- to rigorously enforce the "equal" component of the "separate but equal" standard.
By striking it down, the Court stirred confusion and conflict into the always vexing question of race in a society that owes much of its growth, development, and success to the exploitation of both blacks and whites. Racial policy, Bell maintains, is made through silent covenants -- unspoken convergences of interest and involuntary sacrifices of rights -- which ensure that policies conform to priorities set by powerful policymakers. Blacks and whites are at varying times the fortuitous winners or losers in these unspoken agreements. The experience with Brown, Bell urges, should teach us that meaningful progress in the quest for racial justice requires more than proof of even blatant discrimination. Rather, we must devise tactics, take actions, and even adopt stances that expose and challenge these silent covenants that serve to maintain the racial status quo. In Silent Covenants, Bell condenses more than four decades of thought and action into a powerful and eye-opening book.
Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth
Named as a Christian Science Monitor Best Book of 2002, Ethical Ambition is now available in paperback. As one of America's most influential law professors, Derrick Bell has spent a lifetime helping students struggling to maintain a sense of integrity in the face of an overwhelming pressure to succeed at any price. The result of a meditation on Bell's own achievements, Ethical Ambition is a deeply affecting, uplifting, and thoughtful work that not only challenges us to face some of the most difficult questions that life presents, but also dares to offer solutions.
Derrick Bell is perhaps best known for the principled stand he took at Harvard in 1990 when he quit his tenured position on the law-school faculty to protest the school's failure to grant tenure to a black woman. Now a visiting professor at New York Law School, Bell is still deeply interested in issues of race relations and has chosen to explore the subject fictionally in Afrolantica Legacies. In a nutshell, the story goes like this: a mysterious land mass suddenly appears in the Atlantic Ocean, a fabulous island on which only black people can survive. American blacks set sail to the island to begin a new life, only to see it sink again before they can reach the shore. On the return trip to America, the passengers draw up a list of principles called the Afrolantica Legacies, defining how they want to reposition themselves in American society.
The stories Bell tells to illustrate his points are narrated by Geneva Crenshaw, a character he has used in earlier fiction. Racism, government conspiracies against blacks, and Jewish-black relations are the subjects here, and heroes of African American history such as Marcus Garvey, Thurgood Marshall, and Nat Turner all make appearances. Depending on which side of the black/white divide you happen to stand, Bell's take on race relations in America will either seem right on the money or very grim indeed. --Amazon.com
Choirs: Psalms of Survival in an Alien Land Called Home
Once again Derrick Bell establishes himself as one of the most powerful voices of the African-American community. He uses a series of allegorical stories and encounters with fictional characters to shed light on some of the most perplexing and vexing issues of our day. A unique blend of imagination and real experience, his stories resound with laughter, love, anger, and bitterness, but these parables carry no illusions or false hopes. The important theme of Christian love works continually to ameliorate messages of bitterness and defeat. More like a novel than the two previous books inspired by Geneva Crenshaw, Gospel Choirs nevertheless addresses important issues: contentious ones such as the controversial "Bell Curve Wars" and the media's handling of black men; at other times inspiring ones, such as the secret strength of black women and the healing role of gospel music in the black community.
at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
"Racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society." So begins this powerful and moving book by the controversial civil rights activist and author of the acclaimed And We Are Not Saved. As he did in his earlier book, Derrick Bell drives home his point through a series of allegorical stories and encounters with fictional characters ranging from Geneva Crenshaw, the lawyer-prophet who was the heroine of And We Are Not Saved, to an anonymous limousine driver in New York; from a conservative black economist working with the White House to a radical white activist he meets in the Oregon woods. Each chapter draws on legal precedents, historical excellence, and fiction of an earlier era to shed light on some of the most perplexing and vexing issues of our day. Bell's themes include affirmative action, the disparity between civil rights law and reality, the "racist" outbursts of some black leaders, and the temptation toward violent retaliation. To elucidate these often incomprehensible issues, he invents a "Racial Preference Licensing Act," tells an interracial love story, and crafts a parable about space invaders who offer solutions to all earthly problems - and in return demand to take America's black population to their planet. Via this unique format, a blend of imagination and real experience, the book sends a sobering message: Racism is so integral a part of American life that no matter what blacks do to better their lot, they are doomed to fail as long as the majority of whites do not see that their own well-being is threatened by the inferior status of blacks. Bell calls on blacks to face up to this unhappy truth and abandon the misleading vision of "we shall overcome." Only then will blacks, and those whites who join them, be in a position to create viable strategies to alleviate the burdens of racism
We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice
...Discussing unresolved racial contradictions of the Constitution, still
largely responsible, in Bell's view, for racist attitudes, he uses ingenious
metaphorical tales to illustrate aspects of racial injustice that still obtain.
He charges that whites have benefited more than blacks from civil-rights
reforms, citing desegregation of schools and the 14th Amendment and other
measures that extend constitutional coverage to all citizens. He suggests the
formation of a coalition of disadvantaged blacks and whites, urging that
entitlement standards include class as well as racial disadvantage.