American Racial and Legal History According to Derrick Bell

By Gilmore, Brian | The Crisis, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

American Racial and Legal History According to Derrick Bell


Gilmore, Brian, The Crisis


American Racial and Legal History According to Derrick Bell The Derrick Bell Reader Edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (New York University Press, $24)

Someday, Derrick Bell, the first tenured African American law professor at Harvard Law School, will be compared to the legendary race man James Weldon Johnson. Like Johnson, Bell worked for the NAACP and spent an ambivalent period working in the federal government (Bell at the Department of Justice; Johnson as a diplomat during the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson). Both men were trained as lawyers, and both spent time teaching during their lives.

Yet the most important similarity between the men is that both used their skills to make lasting contributions to the African American artistic tradition in the struggle for equal justice in the United States.

Johnson, an accomplished poet and composer, provided his Black brethren with the lyrics to their national anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (Johnson's brother, John R. Johnson wrote the music). In 1912, Johnson also published one of the great novels of the early 20th century The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

Bell's key contribution to African American arts is his unique writings on American racial history and politics. Beginning in 1987 with his first collection of speculative writing on race and the law, And We Are Not Saved, Bell single-handedly deconstructed the racial dialogue between Blacks and Whites in America.

The overall premise in his writings is poignant: Whites collectively have always acted in America to maintain their status of superiority over Blacks, and everything from the Constitution to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision of 1954 is evidence of their abiding quest.

For those who agree, or disagree, with Bell's radical departure from accepted racial notions, The Derrick Bell Reader offers plenty to dissect. The book could not have arrived at a better time. This is, in effect, Bell's manifesto on the race problem in America from a variety of constructs. The great legal riffs Bell has amassed over the years in law journals and in his books from 1972 to 2004 are here for examination. The editors, husband-and-wife legal scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, have done a fabulous job.

The reader is allowed to enter the heart and soul of Bell, a civil rights champion who clearly could not stomach the failure of the post-civil rights era. Consider the following passage from the book: "Black people will never gain full equality in this country," Bell writes in "Racism is Here To Stay" first published in the Howard University School of Law's journal in 1991. …

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