Thursday, October 06, 2011

And Yet Another Is Removed From the Rack of This Tough World

Last night, I glanced at the New York Times and saw the news of the deaths of Steve Jobs and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth -- the latter of which I posted about here (or just scroll down). Then this morning I looked at the paper again -- and saw that yet another man who had done great works died yesterday: Derrick Bell, one-time professor of law at Harvard Law School.

Unlike Rev. Shuttlesworth or Steve Jobs, I actually met Derrick Bell a number of times. He was a colleague of my dad's, and so I met him in all of the various ways I met the left side of the faculty at HLS when I was growing up. I didn't know him particularly well or anything -- he wasn't one of those our family was particularly close to -- but I knew him, a little bit, a long time ago. So in some ways this death strikes me even more than the other two. Of Derrick Bell, I actually have personal memories.

Two occur to me now, hearing of his death.

The first is a simple occasion, from when I was a teenager -- before college, anyway. Bell had barricaded himself in his HLS office in protest -- of something: to be honest, I don't remember what. Maybe the lack of African American Women Professors on the faculty, which is what he ultimately resigned from HLS over; or maybe it was something else. (Looking over his NYT obituary, I bet it's one of the occasions they describe when "in 1986, he staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the school’s failure to grant tenure to two professors whose work involved critical race theory.") But having barricaded himself in, he couldn't just slip out to eat; so people took turns bringing him food. And one night my family went and had dinner with him in his office, bringing the food along. Nothing particularly dramatic happened; I just recall the dinner, is all.

The second is an even more distant thing. I read Bell's classic SF story "The Space Traders" (that's a link to an online version; there's a pdf here) when it first came in Bell's essay collection Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism, a copy of which was in my house. (I don't think I picked it up because it was SF, although maybe my Dad told me it was -- but I certainly was the sort of kid -- young adult by then, I guess -- who would have idly picked it up and leafed through it.) I liked the story, of course, but I wondered how much SF Bell had read -- it seemed like a story written by a law professor rather than an SF fan as such. So through my Dad I sent word to Bell that he should read the story "Way in the Middle of the Air" in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, which was, in an odd sense, the reverse of Bell's own story; and I got word back thanking me for pointing him at the story, which he hadn't previously seen.

And that's most of what I know about him, to be honest. Aside from his SF story (which I hadn't realized had been made into a TV episode until I saw it mentioned in an obituary this morning), I haven't read much of his work -- the only thing I remember in particular is his contribution to Jack Balkin's essay collection What Brown V. Board of Education Should Have Said, an essay which displays the same despair over the possibility of ever ending racism that he expressed in "The Space Traders", and Faces at the Bottom of the Well more generally -- a despair that I felt was unwarranted, although I was and am also very conscious that that's easy for me to say as a white man living in a racist country, and that Bell's judgment was formed out of both experience and scholarship of which I have no parallel. So I don't trust my judgment on this matter -- although, somehow, it is still the judgment I have, despite that.

Mostly, though, he was a friend of my parents: I met him a few times, I read some of his work, and now he's gone. And the world has one more hole in it, on a day when two too many others had been ripped open already.

I hate it when it feels like I could fill my entire blog with obituary notices. Everyone dies: but, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, "I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned." I would say that this is setting oneself up for ongoing disappointment in life -- save that life really has that taken care of anyway, doesn't it?

Rest in peace.

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