Valerie Cavanaugh

Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell

Valerie Cavanaugh
October 16, 2011

Derrick Bell’s books, articles and lectures stand as vivid and lasting testimony to his intellectual accomplishments; but, a rarity among legal scholars, he brought to his work a unique dimension of imaginative sympathy and emotional resonance. The Geneva Crenshaw parables, for example, are so memorable because they succeed at both an analytical level and an emotional, pre-rational level.

Similarly, in his life, Derrick brought his friends and students the benefits of both his brain and his heart. I knew him for over 40 years, beginning as his secretary in 1970 when he was first working on “Race, Racism and American Law”. After I left because my mother was ill, Derrick checked on me regularly to see how I was doing, urged me to go to law school and felt free to monitor my progress and audit my life. He kept in touch, visited me at my law firm in Los Angeles, questioned my choice of the entertainment industry, made me join the Board of Visitors at the University of Oregon Law School when he was Dean, vetted (and approved) my choice of husband, shared his work on his books and articles, and unfailingly gave me advice whenever I had an ethical quandary. His advice was often solicited and, of course, just as often, unsolicited. But it was always heartfelt and helpful.

Derrick Bell had an intellectual’s passion for ideas, but one of the animating achievements of his life was the enormous reach of his human sympathy and kindness. The world is a much poorer place without him and I shall miss him terribly.