Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell
October 21, 2011
I am still not over seeing the headline flashed across my morning Yahoo Page heralding the death of not only one of my best friends for the last ten years …Derrick….but of a true American monument–Professor, author and cultural thinker, Derrick Bell.
Obviously this site documents his many accomplishments. But I would like to talk about Derrick the person.
Derrick was 100 terrific brothers all rolled into one; just literally one of my three favorite people on earth (President Barack Obama and Johnny Temple being the other two). There will never be another one like Derrick. He fancied me his adopted granddaughter and I remain dumbstruck by such good luck.
We met after my name had been pretty badly muddied in the U.S. media. Derrick was intrigued by the controversy and sent me an email. He read one of my books and became a huge fan of my work, admittedly stunned he said that I could actually write so well considering the attention paid to glamorizing me in the press. We then became email buddies and chatted on the phone (usually debating the latest political news of the week or discussing the situation in my homeland, Sudan).
I don’t think Derrick ever knew this…but one of the things that made me really love
him was the way he talked about his wife, Janet.
He spoke about her as though she was the only woman on earth and a genius to boot.
The fact that he was in his seventies and married so long yet still so strongly enamored
of his wife torpedoed all kinds of stereotypes I held about men. Then when he told
me he’d once lived next door to my idol Alice Walker and that he loved her (as both a person and an artist) despite the black community’s branding her a “man-hating” pariah
for writing “The Color Purple”–I just couldn’t believe I’d met such a feminist minded man. One with an amazing range of empathy and compassion for any and everything that moved.
When the New York Times ran a story defaming me in 2001 (Derrick had been part of the actual story)–Derrick vowed to help change perceptions of my work (work that he felt was extremely important, socially) and perceptions of me as a person.
It should be noted that the last book Derrick ‘blurbed’–was my novel, “The Sexy Part of the Bible”–a book he loved so much that he tried for years to get it published by agenting it himself!
Derrick had taken the manuscript to his editor at Bloomsbury Karen Rinaldi and several other people. But due to stigmas at that time towards me over varying controversies, no one would publish me. Derrick was the one who told me point blank that I was being “Black-Listed” by the New York arm of the publishing industry. By then I’d been published in Harper’s Literary magazine and won a writing award in Sweden, so Derrick felt it was a grave injustice to black-list an artist over personal dislike and not their ability.
Next Derrick helped me get hired on the hit NBC daytime soap opera, “Days of Our Lives” by writing a letter of Personal Reference from New York University. Haha! He was such a marvelous friend. I never asked him for these favors, he just chatted with you and whatever he learned you needed–he tried to help if he could.
When the controversy surrounding my life caused me to be fired from “Days of Our Lives”–Derrick did a “mock trial” in his law classes in which students had to pretend they were representing or opposing a lawsuit brought by me against NBC and G.E. for unlawful firing.
I never filed a lawsuit, but I loved that Derrick used his classes at NYU to demonstrate what would have happened to me had I done so.
We had a lot of grand experiences and I’m extremely sad that he’s gone. One bright spot is our final lunch together last year at Henry’s in Manhattan. I suppose Derrick knew then that he had cancer but he never at any time let me know it. We laughed and celebrated that day because after ten years of friendship, a major house had picked up my novel “The Sexy Part of the Bible” and Derrick (who often said that he wanted to see me triumph in my career aspirations before he died)…was given that wish. He got to see the rave reviews by people like Madison Smart Bell and Boston Globe, which proved that he hadn’t been wrong about my talent as a writer. This was a major source of joy for him and he remarked (though I didn’t catch it then) that mine was the
last book he’d given a blurb to.
In May 2011 when I was gearing up for a national tour, Derrick emailed me that he was sorry he couldn’t come to any of the book readings. He said that he’d just had surgery and would need a few months to get back in shape.
I wrote him a gushing letter expressing my love and appreciation for all that he’d already done. I wanted him to get rest and be ready for our next annual lunch date. But of course that’s a date that will never come now.
Derrick, as far as I know, never cared about dying. He was one to make cynical remarks; to joke over something like his old age or him dying. He saw it as simply the next step.
I on the other hand just feel such…irrevocable loss.
There’s a part of my magic that will never shine again.