Remembering Professor Bell

October 14, 2011
Guest Post

By Anjana Samant, who works as counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights

Professor Derrick Bell.  Say his name and many will remember him as the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School who left in protest over the institution’s failure to hire women of color for the faculty.  Or they will remember him as a prolific writer who, in books such as And We Are Not Saved and Faces at the Bottom of the Well, indicted the legal “victories” of the civil rights movement (including those that he himself had championed) for creating false hope and failing to live up to their promise.  Others will recall Professor Bell as the ground-breaking academic whose legal scholarship gave rise to critical race theory, a movement that used “the first person, storytelling, narrative, allegory, interdisciplinary treatment of law, and the unapologetic use of creativity” to question whether colorblindness and liberal anti-discrimination principles could ever eradicate racism and inequality.

Ask any of the hundreds of students and colleagues with whom Professor Bell worked, and they will tell you he was all this and much more.  Professor Bell was a courageous, principled, and inspiring figure.  And yet for all the acclaim (and derision) he garnered, he also was consummately human.  Professor Bell was humble, soft-spoken, loving, and openly self-critical – in many ways, the antithesis of what one would expect of an esteemed legal academic.

I first came to know Professor Bell as his student during my second and third years of law school, then while working at his side as the Derrick Bell Teaching Fellow from 2001 to 2002, and in the years since, as former student, mentee, and, dare I say, friend.  Teaching – and learning – were two of Professor Bell’s greatest passions and he pursued them at every turn, not just within the confines of the classroom.  He spent as much time sharing wisdom gained from his professional career, life experience, and careful self-reflection as he did gleaning insight from the perspectives and queries of his students.  Humility was valued and encouraged, not through lecture and preaching but by way of example.  Looking back at his work in school desegregation, Professor Bell wrote, “I continued my work in school desegregation, but with a growing sense that the symbolic value of eliminating dual school systems was not equaled by substantive educational benefits for our clients, or the millions of people they symbolically represented.  I had been humbled by reality, and while at first I worried that this was a flaw in the idealism I needed to do this work, I soon understood that humility is a crucial kind of strength.”

Professor Bell also was steadfast in his commitment to transforming the law school class from one in which we were drilled about cold legal abstractions to one in which we discussed law and principle in the context of our lived realities.  We could not leave our opinions, histories, or values at the classroom door.  He asked that we show up each day, intact, as complete human beings no matter what that meant from one student to the next, and have as honest as possible conversations about race, sex, gender identity, class, disability, privilege, law, injustice, history… the list goes on.  Professor Bell challenged himself and his students to create a space in which a dialogue, sometimes uncomfortable, could take place.  He welcomed students from all backgrounds, including those of us who lived at the margins of the law and legal treatises, who were “othered” by history or legal canon, to raise our voices and make ourselves visible.  As he explained in his book Ethical Ambition, “My goal is to inspire and encourage people, whatever their color or status, to achieve their full potential while simultaneously affirming for them and with them that the road they travel to success is often filled with barriers.  It is my desire to help future ‘outsiders’ for the difficulties they will face as they strive for success ….”

Because of his views about the permanence of racism and the intransigence of inequality generally, Professor Bell has often been called a pessimist.  But I find such a characterization overly simplistic and woefully incomplete.  Professor Bell was not melancholy or joyless or paralyzed by his views.  After all, he dedicated over forty years to teaching, during which time he consistently engaged with his students as people without retreating into the proverbial ivory tower.  While Professor Bell may have rejected liberal orthodoxy’s belief that some form of enlightenment could be obtained through reason or rational discourse, in his work and his words – particularly in his invocation of Spirituals – lies an acknowledgment of possibility.  Professor Bell saw social injustice as forever changing, requiring constant reevaluation and reassessment.  Attaining perfection was neither the objective nor the yardstick by which progress or success was to be measured.  The point was to live – to live completely and ethically, to draw strength from struggle and from community, and, most of all, to carry on.

[image via David Shankbone]