Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell
Professor David Troutt
Rutgers Law School
October 29, 2011
To Derrick with Love
The first time I met him, we called Derrick “Professor Bell,” and he, for reasons I learned later, called us “miracles.” Once he was Derrick, we toasted a lot. Because he said it was proof you weren’t trying to poison someone, we’d raise our glasses and take long, exaggerated looks right into each other’s eyes. We congratulated each other on our fine taste in wives and took old-fashioned pleasure in being good husbands. We exchanged furious midnight e-mails about law, writing and politics that ended always with two sublime words in sequence.
I was introduced to his more personal voice by my mother, who gave me And We Are Not Saved as a Christmas present back when I and it were new. I had studied Race, Racism in college, but the voice in Saved transformed me and helped lead me to Derrick at Harvard. There I learned that I might have difficulty knowing him well. I am a man. It is no secret that Derrick Bell felt a certain comfort in the company of brilliant women; I feel the same way. So, against the warnings of male students I knew, I tried the unimaginable. I scheduled an appointment at Derrick’s office hours to talk about struggle. I brought a whole list of questions on a pad. I stepped into a room smaller and less grand than I had expected. It was rather easy. It was home.
Being home with Derrick was a constant lesson in temperament and the calibration of outrage. In 1989, Harvard Law School was not only the crucible of Barack Obama’s leadership, it was the education of miracles amid conflicts several years in the making. Derrick was, to the end, a teacher. We were miracles because some of us were never intended to be there. We had overcome a persistently dynamic opposition to our presence, and a mutual resistance was coming to boil in the struggles over hiring practices, which he championed, the role of critical race scholarship, which he fathered, and the value of diversity, which he demonstrated—ironically—by eventually leaving Harvard in protest. The place was fraught, distracted, nasty. We marched with a miraculous strength and purpose all our own. Yet we discovered a lasting clarity of perspective that he taught. Anger is not usually a clarifying emotion. With calm and sensible brilliance, Derrick taught how to use it as a guide. He brought us words. He fed us pizza.
Years later, after my own miracles were born, he became “Uncle Derrick.” My oldest daughter did not know that the man who walked slowly with her to find salamanders in the woods was a lion of the academy. Coming to his house upstate and seeing him descend from his desk to the sounds of Bach, she had no idea of his courage, the sharpness of his wit or the intimidating lengths to which his relentless sense of justice might go. She still does not know the joke he once told about how, given the fairness of her toddler skin, we might get her a sign to wear that said, “I’m black, too.” No, she knew him only as the man who wore the birthday cake hat all afternoon, the one with the soft voice leaning down to coo hymns to her as long as she would listen.
And I will remember the work. Derrick read anything you sent him and could be a generous, but indelicate editor. “Well…,” he’d begin, “this is not your best work.” Still he managed to critique one of my books, contribute to a collection about Hurricane Katrina and blurb another. The dense e-mails would spread across topics, from lengthy analyses to things he’d just heard on the news. They were notes from home that always contained subtle lessons. And after exchanging many of these, I finally became conscious of the way he said goodbye. There in the corner:
This is rare for a man. This is a rare man.
I will miss the voice of a friend and a mentor, which at its very fiercest was but the sweetest whisper.