Cheryl I. Harris

Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell

Professor Cheryl I. Harris
UCLA Law School
October 15, 2011

Like so many of us, I met Derrick Bell before I met Derrick Bell. By that I mean that my life was already shaped by him before I ever shook his hand, or heard that gentle voice delivering stinging indictments of injustice, or sat across a dinner table and laughed at the latest insane turns of political culture. He stood up and opened a door that I walked through, changing my life before I ever knew him.

I was working as a lawyer, writing amicus briefs on all manner of social justice issues, writing op-eds, chafing at the bit because little of what I was doing on a day to day basis was allowing me to speak in a register to be heard about the things I thought mattered. I had read his work, particularly the brilliant, groundbreaking AND WE ARE NOT SAVED that introduced the world to Geneva Crenshaw and created the racial chronicle. But I never thought I would meet the man. But then, as I said, he stood up. He walked away from Harvard Law School because of his belief that it was wrong to work at an institution that essentially continued to promote the idea that no woman of color was qualified to be on the tenure track faculty. It was, as I later learned, quintessentially Derrick– walking to his own rhythm, his own drum. Like thousands of others, I read about it in the newspaper and saw it on TV–the student organizers and all the beautiful struggle. So when a friend and colleague told me that I should consider going into law teaching I believed it was possible in part because Derrick had already made it seem possible. Indeed, though teaching law was something I had never contemplated because law school seemed hostile to my preoccupations, Derrick demonstrated that it was precisely because it had seemed so to me, that teaching law might be the right thing to do, IN ORDER TO CHANGE IT. And so, I opened myself to that possibility and shortly thereafter I became the first black tenure track law professor at my school.

That fall, black students at Chicago area law schools held a reception for Derrick and I went up to introduce myself and shake his hand. Of course, I didn’t know quite what to say but it turned out it didn’t matter, because he did. He asked me about my work, and my interests, and what I read, and what I thought. And so began a twenty-year conversation, strung out between phone calls, dinners and emails—and oh, what emails they often were! I used to ask him if he ever slept because he would write back without fail and without delay. When I had written a draft of my first major article he was the first person that I sent it to. He had opened that intellectual door as well, identifying in an earlier piece how Plessy had implicated “a property interest in whiteness.” Shortly after I sent my article, he called me. And he did what he has done for so many: He pushed me to make it better and he simultaneously lifted it up, writing a generous endorsement in cover letter to accompany the submission to the editors. He did all of this without ever pausing to hear a thank you: It was as natural to him to do this as breathing. He just wanted to move that giant rock and knew that we all needed to bring our best to do it.

He opened his arms and his family, and embraced me and mine. Gifts for my son and for me came from he and Janet without fail. When my partner and I would come to New York they would make the time to have dinner. This was, as I came to think of it, teaching with his whole self. As I struggled to deal with an overscheduled life and the institutional impediments to bringing justice into law and into the law school, it was sometimes hard to remember the joy but Derrick helped me remember. Talking about something new he read, something different he wanted to try with the class, something to get excited about always left me stronger, thinking about going back and trying it again. And yet this sense of hope and possibility was something he did not lightly espouse in his work. His relentless insistence on looking at entrenched injustice coexisted with a regenerative spirit— a kind of dedication to struggle and a tremendous love of teaching that was contagious. Sometimes we argued about ideas, about people, about whether change would ever come and if it did how deep would it go. It never changed the fact that when we met again, he would still start the same way—“Chile, I’ve been thinking about you.” I am thinking about you too Derrick. And I always will.