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A Small Tribute to Derrick Bell and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Prompted by a warmly offered suggestion from Dream Hampton, I wrote this stream of consciousness on October 6th. I posted it on Facebook today, and then was encouraged by Aishah Shahidah Simmons to share it more broadly. So here it is:


I hesitated to write about Derrick Bell. He mentored and encouraged so many young lawyers and scholars, I hardly felt that with my modest interactions with him, I was an appropriate person to speak on his legacy. But his death, along with that of the legendary civil rights activist, Fred Shuttlesworth, on October 5 hit me so hard and so deep, it was impossible not to put fingers to keyboard in some kind of remembrance.


I arrived at Harvard in 1994, two years after Bell’s departure, but his presence was felt. His decision to take an unpaid leave of absence, followed by Harvard’s removal of him from the faculty, resonated in part because the subject of his protest- the absence of women of color on the faculty, remained unresolved.


I was a student pursuing both a Ph.D. and  J.D. The contrast between the two programs was marked in many ways not the least of which was that this was the heyday of the “Dream team” in African American Studies. Blackness was in vogue at Harvard in the Arts and Sciences. A bright luster seemed to lay gently on the presence of the students of this formidable group. And we reveled in it.


In contrast, despite the illustrious group of African American men teaching at the law school, It felt tense around issues of race. It was less inviting, more fraught. When Lani Guinier arrived, 8 long years after Bell’s protest began, I eagerly became a student of hers. She, after all, was a principal inspiration for me even attending law school. Having witnessed the public outcry over her scholarly efforts to think about how to make political representation more just, I decided that training in law was a way to do meaningful work as a scholar.


But I also loved social theory and literature. I wanted to think about race across the boundaries of disciplinary categories. And so, when I finished my education I reached out to Derrick Bell. I wrote him, asking, with some desperation admittedly, how to do what I wanted to do. How to write, drawing on my training in literature, and social theory, as well as law, to make unique and unconventionally formed arguments about the problem of inequality.


He wrote me back almost immediately, and I am sure he didn’t know who I was from a can of paint, and he gave me advice that I held close to my chest. He told me that I must be prolific. That I did not have the luxury of writing a few sterling pieces, but that I had to create a body of work, and that even though there would be people who tore it apart I had to keep writing.


I saw him several times in my first two years of teaching. He encouraged me to innovate as a scholar. I’m not sure if I would be the scholar I am today without that encouragement. I often feel my decision to work across fields receives more criticism than praise, especially from law professors. But I was given a powerful affirmation from Bell. The gift he gave me to work in legal academia was manifold. With his historic protest, he asserted my legitimacy as someone who could stand in front of a law school classroom. He supported my efforts to try to find my own voice and method as a scholar. And he modeled a commitment to grappling with the problem of race over the course of decades. It was not one book or a few articles, it was a constant reaching, a rigor and a care with making the argument elegant and clear for the reader, as a means for making the case for racial equality and fairness.


21 years before I matriculated at Harvard, I was born a brown girlchild in Birmingham, Alabama. The fact that my mother and her siblings could reach across the jim crow veil into professions and geographies previously exclusive, was a testimony to and benefit of Fred Shuttlesworth’s courage. He risked his life, repeatedly, so that a collective black “we” might cross new thresholds. And the specific “we” of my family lives with that blessing. I feel the weight of that gift as a daughter of the city he waged battle in. Similarly, Derrick Bell pushed open and held open doors, sacrificing his own comfort and security. That act enabled me to enter into legal academia, and write at the intersection of law, race and the humanities. I now find myself looking in a mirror and seeing their faces on either side of my own, begging the question: what sacrifices are merited today?


I am not going to dictate what those ought to be for anyone else, and I’m not entirely sure what they will be for me. What I simply want to say is that courage needs to be revitalized. There must be some principles worthy of risking personal advantage. It is not enough to give when it doesn’t hurt, it matters to put one’s neck out when that neck is vulnerable. My prayer is that over the course of my professional career I can be the kind of scholar who models the courage and integrity I want my children and students to enter into the world with, the kind of courage and integrity these heroic men embodied.