During each month, the broadcast will feature a recommended book to the audience. The last Saturday of the month will provide a live segment to be focused on getting impressions and thoughts from listener readers. We will attempt to feature a relevant guest for each book.
OCG Book November, 2013
Faces At the Bottom of the Well, Professor Derrick Bell
Discussion Date: November 30, 2013
The noted civil rights activist uses allegory and historical example to present a radical vision of the persistence of racism in America. These essays shed light on some of the most perplexing and vexing issues of our day: affirmative action, the disparity between civil rights law and reality, the “racist outbursts” of some black leaders, the temptation toward violent retaliation, and much more.
Derrick Albert Bell, Jr. was born on November 6, 1930 in Pittsburgh, the eldest of four children. At an early age, Derrick’s parents, Ada Elizabeth Childress Bell, a homemaker, and Derrick A. Bell, Sr., a millworker and department store porter, instilled in him a serious work ethic and the drive to confront authority.
Derrick was the first person in his family to go to college. He attended Duquesne University, where he earned an undergraduate degree and served in the school ROTC. He then served as a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, where he was stationed in Korea and Louisiana.
In 1969, Derrick joined the faculty of Harvard Law School; in 1971, he became the first black tenured professor on the faculty of the law school. In 1973, Derrick published the casebook that would help define the focus of his scholarship for the next 38 years: Race, Racism and American Law. The publication of Race, Racism and American Law, now in its sixth edition, heralded an emerging era in American legal studies, the academic study of race and the law.
In 1980, Derrick became the Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, becoming one of the first African Americans to serve as dean. That same year, he published a seminal work Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma, 93 Harv. L. Rev. 518 (1980), in which he argued that white Americans would only support racial and social justice to the extent that it benefits them. His argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown was driven, not by concerns over genuine equality and progress for black Americans, but rather by concerns over the nation’s emerging role as an anti-Communist military superpower, sent tremors through the legal academy.
In 1986, Derrick resigned his position as Dean of Oregon Law in protest of the faculty’s refusal to hire an Asian American female professor. He returned that same year to Harvard.
Soon after Derrick’s return to Harvard Law School, he staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the law school’s failure to grant tenure to two female professors of color. With student support, Derrick launched a protest movement at Harvard Law School that received national attention.
Derrick saw the parallels between his work as a civil rights lawyer and a leader for the students’ demand for increased diversity on the law school faculty. In 1990, after years of activism around the hiring and promotion of female professors of color, Derrick took an unpaid leave of absence in protest from Harvard Law School. He would never return. After refusing to end his two-year protest leave, Harvard University dismissed Derrick from his position as Weld Professor of Law.
During this tumultuous time, Derrick met Janet Dewart. As the communications director of the National Urban League, Janet called Derrick for permission to publish one of his fictional stories. This conversation was the spark of a new relationship, and they were married in June 1992.
During his long academic career, Derrick wrote prolifically, integrating legal scholarship with parables, allegories, and personal reflections that illuminated some of America’s most profound inequalities, particularly around the pervasive racism permeating and characterizing much of American law and society. Derrick is often credited as a founder of Critical Race Theory, a school of thought and scholarship that critically engages questions of race and racism in the law, investigating how even those legal institutions purporting to remedy racism can more profoundly entrench it.
After a valiant battle with cancer, Derrick Bell died on October 5, 2011. In Derrick was an incredibly spiritual man with a deep appreciation for gospel music. As such, it is only fitting that a biblical verse sums up the extraordinary life of Derrick Bell: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Matthew 25:23
And, he discusses "Faces . . ." on C-Span