Pamela Newkirk

Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell

Professor Pamela Newkirk
NYU School of Journalism
October 15, 2011

In Derrick I had a moral compass, fierce advocate, mentor, and loyal friend rolled into one debonair package. Never preachy or doctrinaire, he mostly listened and led by the luminous light of his extraordinary life. Derrick always marveled at my relatively modest accomplishments, and those of other women who balanced work with family. He was an ardent feminist who truly valued women’s undervalued worth.

I wanted to be like Derrick. He held fast to his principles and was willing to pay the price for them without judging others. He believed the man in the mirror was more important than the one others see. He was a workaholic and prolific writer who still carved out quality time for his family, friends and legions of students whose lives he continue to touch years beyond law school. But work was his oxygen and provided a reliable outlet for his inspired scholarship, artistry and moral musings.

Derrick was a study in contradictions: he was a Depression-era baby who counted his pennies but was generous beyond measure. Derrick spoke softly but his words exploded like dynamite and continued to ring in your ears. Derrick was a fiercely proud black man who loved and revered women and whose preoccupation with race never precluded friendships across the color line. Derrick was academic royalty with a humble bearing. He had strong moral convictions but never denigrated another view. He was modest but always dapper and while his outlook on race seemed pessimistic, he always hoped he would ultimately be wrong. Derrick epitomized ethical ambition.

I will miss his gentle encouragement and unwavering support. I’ll miss seeing him at one of my book signings, beaming with fatherly pride. I’ll miss our many debates over the state of the nation and over his jolting prophesies. I’ll miss his grandfatherly interest in my children. But what I’ll miss as much as the many breakfasts we shared at a neighborhood diner are the email messages he wrote in the still of night when he reflected on what our friendship meant to him, or what he thought of an essay I had written or an experience we had shared. I’ll miss not having to wonder what Derrick would do in a particular circumstance. I’ll miss his reassuring voice; his unerring wisdom. There’ll never be another Derrick Bell. I feel so incredibly honored and blessed that he was my friend.