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Professor Derrick Bell, 1930–2011 | The Nation

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Patricia J. Williams

Patricia J. Williams

The online diary of a mad law professor.

Professor Derrick Bell, 1930–2011

I met Professor Derrick Albert Bell when I was 19 years old. I was an undergraduate, but a student of his had invited me to sit in on one of his classes in constitutional law at Harvard. At that point in my life, I was thinking of going on for a PhD in… linguistics? Urban studies? Sociology? Maybe art history. I was lost in the something-or-other stage of my life and couldn’t for the life of me make up my squishy, floaty mind.

Professor Bell’s lecture fixed all that. He had that class divided into interest and advocacy groups, taking various sides in the Supreme Court cases they were studying. The teams were arguing with each other like mad, and the passion and purpose flying around that room were like tangible objects. You had to duck to avoid getting laser-beamed by the sharp, whizzing commotion of high-octane ideas.

When I actually got to law school, I discovered that not every class was like Professor Bell’s. This was around the same time that The Paper Chase came out, which highlighted the harsh questioning of the Socratic Method that then reigned supreme in most of legal academia. I cowered with my classmates in fear of what often felt like mockery or derision. In addition, there were not a lot of women in law school in those days—we were only 8 percent of the class—and sexism was only beginning to be addressed as just possibly inimical to the educational process. I had expected to love law school. Instead, I hated it within the first ten minutes.

Derrick Bell is the only reason I didn’t leave. As he had in that first glimpse of his teaching, he made ideas come alive. He made the dry pages of treatises vivid; he never let us forget the human stories behind every tract, every suit, every appeal. He imbued legal education with a sense of purpose and responsibility: we weren’t there for ourselves alone, but to live up to a calling and to become of service. He helped me reframe the sense of isolation and intimidation I felt as causes, as precisely the reasons there was an obligation to stay the course.

Until Professor Bell, people like me—females, African-Americans, students who weren’t wealthy, who weren’t legacies—were left to our own devices to try to penetrate the Old Boys network. We had to discover that secret societies even existed before we could try to break down the doors; and we had to comprehend how many deals were made in eating clubs before we could understand why invitation to those high tables was not merely about the potatoes au gratin.

There was every manner of institutional insularity in those days, calculated to shut out most of the world. In contrast, Professor Bell’s door was always open. His mind was always open. Always soft-spoken, always polite, he made others’ doors open too—he supported disability, elderly and gay rights long before any of that was part of the national conversation. He worked to get more women on the faculty when few others thought their lack an issue. Over time, his efforts changed not only Harvard but the way all law schools treated students. He spoke truth to power in a way that removed that notion from mere cliché. And he created family in the unlikely setting of a law school.

I had the great fortune to work as a research assistant for him, updating the first two editions of his textbook Race, Racism and American Law. It was the best job I ever had, not only because of what I learned about the practice of law but because he connected me to a practice of being. He was what Malcolm Gladwell has called a “nodal” person: anything worth knowing could be found through him. With all due respect to Kevin Bacon, Derrick Bell was only two or three degrees removed from everyone on the planet.

A few years after I graduated from law school, Professor Bell urged me to think about teaching. It was not a career path I ever would have considered otherwise. This was at a time when there were virtually no women in law teaching—to say nothing of women of color. He said he just saw me as teaching; and so it was. It would be too easy to say he was visionary like that; but the truth is he made things happen. He believed in a broadly inclusive mandate for equality that was boundless and prescient. He pushed and he pulled and he checked in on his students. He made friends with them for life. He was so unqualifiedly selfless that many of us called him Father Derrick—not because he was ever paternalistic but because he was such a wise provider to those of us stumbling about in a professional world that was new, inscrutable and not altogether welcoming. He was a mentor before we had a word for it.

Like legions of others, I felt like a daughter among extensive and extended family. And as such, I, we, suffered constantly from sibling rivalry—we all wanted to be Derrick’s favorite child. We came and we went, we visited and lunched, we darted in and out of his life like hummingbirds eternally hungry for succor. But if he made us feel “as though” we were family, we were always aware of his real family, the vital core that was his pride and joy. His first wife, Jewel, and his second wife, Janet, were true intellectual companions, both as warm, funny and kind as he. And his sons—Derrick, Douglas and Carter—were his heart. I was fortunate—and old enough—to have watched those three remarkable sons grow up. I baby-sat for them, walked the family dogs with them, shared so many lovely moments. They were delightful, polite, thoughtful children; and all three have grown up to be great-souled, good-hearted and gentle human beings. What greater pride can there be.

Derrick Bell touched more people than most of us mere mortals could ever dream. He was a great man precisely because there were no conditions upon his energies. He had a huge capacity for love, for justice and for justice as a form of love. Like all the greatest teachers, his influence remains eternally generative.

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