Derrick Bell – A Legal Giant Passes

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by andré douglas pond cummings

To most individuals affiliated with SALT as well as lawyers around the world, a hero, mentor, friend and exemplar has passed away. Professor Derrick Bell, the originator and founder of Critical Race Theory, passed on October 5, 2011 in New York City. Professor Bell was 80 years old.

Known as a creative innovator and agitator, Professor Bell often sacrificed his career in the name of principles and objectives that have inspired a generation of scholars of color and progressive lawyers everywhere. Bell resigned a tenured position on the Harvard Law School faculty to protest Harvard’s refusal to hire and tenure women of color onto its law school faculty. For the past twenty years, Professor Bell taught at NYU Law School.

For my own part, Professor Bell’s writings seized my imagination in law school and appeared to me as if “manna from heaven” as a second year law student. Bell’s scholarship, including his widely influential books Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism and And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice resonated intellectually with me like nothing I had ever encountered before in my life. His desire to disaggregate legal scholarship from its traditional moorings and introduce legal storytelling, narrative, parables and fiction as a new and bold form of legal writing was groundbreaking and changed the legal academy dramatically.

My own tribute to Professor Bell appears in my recent Louisville Law Review article “A Furious Kinship: Critical Race Theory and the Hip Hop Nation.” I believe that Bell’s groundbreaking narrative style struck a cord with me because I had grown up in Southern California listening to the narrative storytelling of groundbreaking hip hop artists. In “A Furious Kinship” I endeavor to parallel the influence of Professor Bell as the patriarch of Critical Race Theory with the influence of Chuck D and Public Enemy, one of the most important socially conscious hip hop artists and groups to ever emerge. In true Professor Bell fashion, when I had occasion to tell him in person of my vision of this influential parallel of powerful voices, Bell as founder of CRT and Chuck D as originator of socially conscious hip hop, he seemed genuinely delighted by this narrative connection, encouraging me to continue the exploration.

From the Louisville Law Review article, I wrote the following: “Critical Race Theory patriarch Derrick Bell and socially conscious rap pioneer Chuck D both delivered their messages with an intent to educate, inspire, and motivate change. Their stance was often professorial, deeply motivated by a desire to teach and inform. Chuck D famously called hip hop the “Black CNN,” as Public Enemy was intent on informing, exposing, and educating. Chuck D seized the opportunity to transform the hip-hop message, ultimately ushering in a generational revolution simply by seizing a microphone and delivering powerful, intellectual messages of defiance and purpose. Similarly, Derrick Bell famously critiqued a stalled Civil Rights Movement, exposing the weaknesses in that which had been hailed as thoroughly triumphant. Intent on motivating, inspiring, and exposing through protest, resignation, explosive writing, and inspired mentoring, Professor Bell seized the opportunity to change the law and the system of legal education. The parallel critiques of American mores and traditions, by both Professor Bell and Public Enemy, were stark, bold, and biting. These critiques powerfully influenced a generation.”

Professor Bell will be deeply missed, though his influence will live on for generations.

Professor Charles Ogletree has crafted a touching tribute to Professor Bell at The Root.

Cross-Posted on the Corporate Justice Blog.