In 1996, I had my first peer-reviewed presentation accepted to a major conference. I was only a few years into my doctoral program and I was nervous about my research interests. During the conference, I attended a luncheon. The keynote speaker was Derrick Bell. I knew nothing about him. I had not read any of his work. In fact, I was seated right next to him and had no concept of the power that he had in his voice and writings. What I do remember is that he was kind and engaging. Knowing that I was nervous, he listened, and probed to find out my interests. It wasn’t until he got up to serve as the luncheon keynote speaker that I had any idea with whom I had just been talking. Listening to Bell, I was inspired, motivated, and pushed to consider issues that I may have previously ignored.
After meeting Bell, I devoured all of his books and have continued to do so over the course of my career. What I loved most about Bell’s work was his ability to tell stories. He was best known for his “Space Traders” story in which aliens offer to buy all the African Americans in the U.S. However, I enjoyed the way he told stories about his own life. One of Bell’s most influential books, in my opinion, is Confronting Authority, which is a chronicle of his decision to give up his tenured faculty position at Harvard. Bell forfeited his professorship at Harvard Law School in a protest over the school’s refusal to tenure a woman of color. There aren’t many faculty members who would do what he did in the name of justice. Confronting Authority is personal, riveting, and inspiring but it also gets at the deep problems within the academy in terms of fit, collegiality, merit, sexism, and racism. I have assigned this book in several of my classes at Penn. It forces students to think about what they are willing to give up in the name of justice for others. It also provokes deep discussion about American higher education.
In 2003, Bell penned Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth. Telling another very personal story, he encouraged readers to grapple with some of the most difficult issues in American history, including inequity, poverty, and racism. Through stories from his life, he encourages us to take action and work to change the lives of those around us. Although many Critical Race Theorists (a scholarly approach for which Bell is in part responsible) fail to provide any solutions—merely pointing out injustices—Bell offers solutions in this book. He urges us to live a life that is honest and purposeful. Of note and of beauty, Bell asks us to live up to our potential without being preachy and self-righteous. He does so with kindness.
Bell wrote another story in 2004. This time he imagined an alternative court decision in the landmark desegregation decision—Brown v. Board of Education. In Brown v. Board and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, Bell, who played a significant role in fighting for justice in the courts after the Brown decision, lamented his actions. After years of reflection he had come to the conclusion that blacks might be better off in a separate but equal society—where equal was enforced. Of course he acknowledged the vast inequities present under Plessy v. Ferguson, but he argued that these inequalities continue to exist under Brown v. Board. According to Bell, Brown legitimized the status quo. Large numbers of blacks continued to be poor and disempowered, but because their lives were no longer the result of the legal denial of equality, movement to make progress was slow after Brown and has continued to be slow. Although we will never know what the lives of blacks would be like in a truly “separate but equal” nation, Bell does force us to think deeply about our commitment (or lack of) to equality for all.
Although many disagreed with him, Bell forced us to challenge our systems in the United States—systems that we assume are based on a commitment to equity but are often not. Rather than just hitting us over the head with an idea, he used the art of storytelling to help us understand the oppression, perspectives, and hopes of others. He truly had a beautiful mind.