Paul Butler

Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell

Professor Paul Butler
George Washington University Law School
October 17, 2011

Derrick Bell taught me the bravery and the sense of responsibility that are required to be a Black person who gets paid to think. I should say “showed” rather than “taught;” I will never be as brave or as responsible as he. He also showed me, to paraphrase the African proverb, that the scholar who is not in trouble with the king is in trouble with his work. Derrick was always getting into trouble with some king somewhere, and when you did too, occasionally and tentatively, that’s when he would reach out.

I should say “carry you” rather than “reach out.” How many letters of recommendations or tenure reviews or book blurbs did he write? For me, all of the above, and I am just one of the many blessed enough to have been mentored by him. I have cited Derrick’s work in pretty much everything I have ever written, and I talked about him so much in my “Race, Racism, and American Law” course (named, of course, after his book) that one of my former students sent me a condolence email when he died, like I was a member of his family.

Which he always made you feel like. Giving the Derrick Bell lecture at NYU was one of the highlights of my career. Actually my life, because one of the things they do is to pay for a member of the lecturer’s family to come, because family was so important to Derrick, and so my mother was there, and my father, and we met the beautiful and vivacious Janet, and we heard all about Derrick’s sons. Now both my father and Derrick are gone, and I hope they get a chance, wherever they are, to listen to some good jazz together and talk about it what it was like to be a race man back in the day, and laugh some at all the wack post race mess now.

What I am remembering about Derrick is his voice. His figurative voice, of course, but especially his literal one: he had such a soft and gentle voice, so different from what you might expect from his fierce writings. I am also remembering the way that he listened: warmly and completely. He was one of the most decent human beings I have ever known.