Derrick Bell on Law and Literature

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Crisis Forum

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When Derrick Bell published a fascinating collection of allegorical narratives (part fiction. part legal analysis) entitled And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice in 1987, the civil rights lawyer and legal scholar launched a new era in Black writing. Described by novelist Alice Walker as "a book of compelling originality," And We Are Not Saved and its sequels - Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Gospel Choirs: Psalms of Survival in an Alien Land Called Home and Afrolantica Legacies - changed the way Black lawyers were viewed along America's cultural landscape.

Today, many other African Americans with impressive legal backgrounds Stephen L. Carter, Patricia Elam, Patricia Williams and Randall Kennedy - have become successful authors. Bell, humble and reserved, takes no credit for the rise of the Black lawyer as writer.

"It is just a natural outgrowth of the success of Black lawyers," he says.

Bell, 72, has been a visiting professor at New York University School of Law for a dozen years. He continues to write and has no plans to retire from teaching. And if the subject matter of his latest effort, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth (Bloomsbury), is any indication, he remains on the cutting edge of today's important issues. Beginning with the opening words of the book - "How can I maintain my integrity while seeking success?" - Bell meditates eloquently on the issue of professional ethical conduct.

Bell admits that he has "never ceased grappling with" that question and knows that today's law graduates, burdened with increasingly high levels of student loan debt, deal with it as well. This is precisely why Bell describes toiling in the legal profession as one of the "most unhappiest" endeavors one could choose and insists that the work will never be satisfying unless one is "passionate" about the law.

"If you really want to be happy, you should seek out work that you would do if they were paying you nothing," he says.

A zeal for the law is easy for Bell to write about, because his career has been nothing short of remarkable. This despite the fact that he came along at a time when he says, "there was nothing" for Black law school graduates.

In 1960, Bell was hired by Thurgood Marshall to work at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. There, Bell worked with the future U.S. Supreme Court justice and other legal legends such as Constance Baker Motley, Jack Greenberg and Robert L. Carter. He describes this time as "some of the most exciting years of the Civil Rights Movement."

In 1969, Bell was offered a position as a full-time professor at Harvard Law School. He was, in fact, the first Black full-time professor in the 150-year history of the school and would eventually become the school's first tenured Black law professor. …