Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell
Professor Suzette Malveaux
Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law
October 26, 2011
I was working with Professor Bell on his last book before he died. When I first learned this spring that Professor Bell was sick, I was overcome with a feeling of helplessness. I wanted to support him, but didn’t know how. So I did the only thing I could think of—going back to being his Research Assistant. Although now a law professor, I was Professor Bell’s Research Assistant twenty years ago, as a law student at NYU. This summer I would go back in time to the young mentee I was decades ago and work for him—wading through articles, books and blogs—aiding his fight for justice in the world of ideas.
“Stories have a timeless quality that conveys their messages over time and place.”1
Professor Bell’s latest work was like the others I’ve had the privilege of working on and reading as a student. Professor Bell loved to tell and use stories to convey profound legal concepts and serious messages. This literary vehicle made his work accessible to everyone. Not surprisingly, his latest book was no exception. In true form, Professor Bell anchored his latest critique of current affairs and today’s legal landscape in a story—indeed, a seventeenth century European folk tale.
Using stories as a bridge between different peoples, Professor Bell recently drew inspiration from the fairy tales told by European peasants in the seventeenth century—analogizing them to the spirituals of enslaved Africans. Transcending geography, time and race, Professor Bell brilliantly linked the struggle and lessons of the poor across continents, centuries and cultures. Using this fairy tale as a framing device, he would go on to examine how various efforts to achieve equality have been compromised under his well-known interest convergence theory. He continued to wrestle with cutting edge issues, such the current joblessness in a corporate-dominated society, the efficacy of federal civil rights laws and the meaning of Barack Obama’s election, as the first African-American president.
Professor Bell also taught his students that our own stories were important. It was in his class that I was challenged to write my own reflection on what it was like to be called the N word for the first time. I will never forget how powerful that exercise was for me as a young adult to reflect back on that moment. It was at summer camp in New Hampshire. I was a twelve year old scout, proudly carrying the American flag as the head of our troop in the local July 4th parade, when I was shouted down by a car of angry white males. Professor Bell valued personal histories and each person as social critic.
Like Professor Bell’s scholarship—which pushed the pedagogical envelope through storytelling—his leadership was creative, bold and unorthodox. What was so refreshing about Professor Bell’s leadership style is that he delivered scathing critiques with a gentle, soft voice and listened to his critics with a disarming empathy and warmth. Professor Bell demonstrated that you don’t have to be loud or mean to be strong. Leadership comes in all forms and personality types. Courage was what was important.
One of the causes Professor Bell championed that I treasure the most is his going to bat for Black women and other women of color in their quest for inclusion in legal academia. His willingness to forgo his tenured position at Harvard and other traditional indicia of success for this cause was extremely affirming. It said in no uncertain terms to us: You are worth it. This unabashed sacrifice jarred my young mind into rethinking what was possible and important.
Professor Bell was my mentor. He was a mentor and teacher to hundreds of us, in hundreds of ways. I first sought out his advice when deciding where to go to law school. At the time, I was trying to decide between Harvard, Yale & NYU, and after a three-year deferment, wasn’t sure of law school at all. After listening carefully to me, to my surprise, he suggested Harvard. He was not bitter; that was not his style. His objective and fair-minded advice struck me. And although I ultimately decided to go to NYU because of its public-interest-oriented Root program, I never forgot the candid counsel I had received. I was hooked.
Professor Bell’s advice was not limited to my career. He loved to dole out unsolicited advice about my love life! And so, of course, I couldn’t help myself when I visited with him this past Labor Day weekend. He was a treasure trove of information. I had to ask: How did he have two incredibly successful marriages? “Pick the right one, and love the one you’re with.” That weekend with him and Janet was a testament to his wisdom. The intense love I was in the presence of—in the midst of a disease that was far along—was palpable.
Because of Professor Bell’s importance to me as mentor and teacher, I felt compelled to give back to him, in some way. The last e-mails he managed to write to me this summer stated, “I will look to get your view on Obama,” and optimistically, “I am ready with more assignments.” And so when I got off the bus in New York City that September day, I was disappointed that during my ride I had not finished reviewing all of the information my own research assistant had pulled for me—describing the post-racial Obama debate. I was accustomed to Professor Bell’s razor sharp critique and intellectual rigor. I didn’t always agree with Professor Bell and I wanted to be prepared. So I tucked into a café to finish my reading and didn’t go to his home until I was ready.
I arrived at his house that Saturday afternoon with Lisa Boykin—a dear law school friend and virtual daughter to Professor Bell—to talk about the book. Janet had advised me that discussion of the book would be light. This was true. As it turns out, my materials were not needed; the focus had shifted. Literally sitting at the feet of our mentor, we brought him water, clipped his fingernails, brushed his hair, and held his hand as he labored to breathe and manage pain. He still offered pearls of wisdom. “Less is more.” His strength was being harnessed to teach his next class, to be there for his students.
I am so grateful to have been with Professor Bell that weekend. At the time, I didn’t know it would be the last time he would walk or share a meal at his dining room table. I am thankful that I had the chance to tell him I loved him and to sit at the foot of a giant, if only to hold his hand. I went back home Sunday night and he went back to the hospital on Monday.
The book was not completed. Upon reflection, I’ve come to appreciate what that says about Professor Bell and his life. He lived a life worth emulating. His life was full of ideas and passion until the very end. It is not surprising that his “to do” list was not finished. Lately, I’ve started to see the incomplete list as a blueprint for the next generation. I am reminded of seven years ago, when Professor Bell and I went running together in DC. We ran side by side—my relative youth giving me a slight lead. Now when I envision that run, I imagine his passing me a baton. And I ascribe that lead, not to youth, but to the step necessary for me to reach back and grab the baton and carry his legacy forward.