Bernestine Singley

Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell

Bernestine Singley
October 16, 2011

I met Derrick at the end of my 2d year of law school at the University of Florida. The Atlanta law firm where I had just finished a summer clerkship had awarded me with a trip to the Airlie Conference in Virginia where civil rights lawyers and activists from around the nation gathered annually to develop their litigation strategy for the coming year.

When Derrick walked up on me, I was scatalogically confronting authority in the form of a famous civil rights lawyer who had just asked me out on a date. In response, I was inquiring whether his wife and children would be joining us. Derrick gently took me by the elbow and guided me to calm. With that, we set the tone for the next 40 years of our relationship.

A year later, I entered Harvard Law School to earn my LL.M. It’s Derrick’s fault—and my blessing—that within weeks of my arrival, Harvard Law School was also where he convened the first “Minority Law Professors and Administrators Conference” in the fall of 1974. It was “and Administrators” because there were so few “minority” law professors, they needed their administrative colleagues to boost numbers sufficient to support a conference. (Three years later, by the way, there were still only 188 full-time minority law professors in the US.)

Despite his best efforts to turn me into a law professor, I am the one who got away. It’s a victory of which I reminded Derrick countless times as he worked his magic on hundreds of others over the decades. To this day, those law professors point to him as the catalyst for their decision to follow in his footsteps as a law teacher and activist inside and outside the classroom. And thousands of others, who don’t point to him as having paved their way, should.

I am forever grateful to Derrick for my front seat at that 1974 conference because that’s where I heard and saw what a toll it took on him and his colleagues to be “the first” of color and women in the law academy. That was enough to turn me in another direction and I have never regretted my decision. I am grateful that he has always seamlessly supported me even as he never stopped needling me for being the Prodigal Law Daughter.

I raised hell in law school and suffered the consequences, which is why I spent much tissue time at the Bells’ kitchen table. Derrick and Jewel Hairston Bell, his fierce, brilliant, perfect partner; their sons, Dell, Douglass, and Carter; and Hero, their nutty, lovable escape artist Weimeraner, all embraced me as family. Derrick and Jewel were a gleaming example of what life could be like inside a committed, healthy relationship of loving independence and reciprocity. The blessing of my life and marriage today are a direct outcome of what I learned there.

On campus, Derrick was my LL.M. thesis advisor and I was his research assistant for his textbook, Race, Racism, and American Law. So, we spent many hours together, discussing the intricate workings of Harvard Law School specifically and race and law generally. Though he sometimes counseled me toward a more accommodating stance in my law school fracases, he always backed me up in whatever was my final decision even if it wasn’t one with which he agreed.

Derrick’s influence and guidance were ubiquitous. Not content to direct my life in law school, he continued instructing me forever after. From the first time I sent him a letter, he began badgering me to write for publication. A contrarian by nature, however, I waited twenty years before I complied. When publishers didn’t beat each other down in a rush to buy my manuscripts, Derrick was adamant throughout it all: “I’m sorry, Miss. No matter what they do, you can’t stop. You have to finish what you started.” Consequently, in 2002, my book When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories was published. The first of its kind, it stands as a testament to his persistence as much as it is to mine.

Derrick and I talked several times each month and, so, I had no intention of going to see him in what we both knew were his final days. I felt like we had already said all that needed to be said. So I was comfortable leaving that space for those who had not been fortunate enough to have him in their lives on such an intimate basis for four decades. But when he asked me to teach a session of his Constitutional Law seminar at NYU in September, I instantly said yes.

As soon as I agreed, though, I asked, “But what am I going to teach?” Almost before I could finish my question, he said, “Your book, of course. The one you dedicated to me, Stomping on Thin Ice. And so, on Wednesday, 28 September 2011, I did. Not only did Derrick sit through the entire class, he even participated in the discussion. Forty-eight hours later, he slipped into a coma.

I know now that my indefatigable, awesome mentor and friend brought me to him for his final lesson: that even though I, who coined the term “Derrick’s Daughters” and yet took pride in being the one who wouldn’t act right because he had never gotten me to toe his law-teaching line; I, the one who thought she had gotten away, had done no such thing. Because, in the end, there I stood right where he placed me: the daughter on whom he chose to bestow the ultimate honor, standing in his shoes, teaching the last class he would ever attend.

Res ipsa loquitur.