I am deeply saddened by the passing of the committed scholar-activist Derrick Bell on October 5, 2011 at the age of 80.
Professor Bell was never my teacher in a formal sense. He nevertheless had a profound influence on me. I remain his grateful mentee.
I met Professor Bell in the late 1990s when I was a doctoral student at New York University. He was a towering figure on campus; yet he was eminently approachable.
I don’t recall the exact fortuitous moment at which I met Professor Bell. But I will never forget the many kindnesses he showed me over many years.
Whenever and wherever I encountered Professor Bell on campus, he would take a moment to ask how my research was developing and offer a nugget of advice or support. He enthusiastically encouraged me to pursue my then nascent interests in the Black Panther Party and on science fiction and technology in black culture. The latter project owed an immeasurable debt to the speculative turn he took in “Space Traders,” a chapter of his widely-read book Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.
By coincidence, Professor Bell was invited to be a distinguished lecturer at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, where I was a resident fellow working toward the completion of my dissertation. He generously offered to visit the class I was teaching on the black power and civil rights movements during his visit. I was an inexperienced teacher and that day, with Professor Bell in my classroom, I felt especially green. I soon found myself floundering in front of my students and in front of the mentor I so wanted to impress. Professor Bell gracefully took over the class for a few moments. Just as gracefully, he handed the class back over to me, after I had regained my composure.
We never spoke of that awkward moment—not on that day, not years later. But even without communication, important lessons were conveyed:
There is no embarrassment in making a mistake and beginning again.
A true teacher uplifts by example rather than humiliating with criticism.
Mentoring does not always require words.
After I assumed my first teaching position at an elite university, Professor Bell spoke frankly and urgently with me about how to navigate the life of the mind amidst the distinctive inequalities of the ivory tower. He told me that I did not have to compromise my scholarship or my principles or my politics. Never stated, but always understood, was the fact that Bell himself had helped to blaze the trail that I was on.
In subsequent years, I have tried to model with others the devoted mentoring that I received from Professor Bell at a critical point in my life. I turn again and again to his book Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth for words of wisdom for myself and my students.
The outpouring of admiration for Professor Bell in recent days has impressed upon me that my experiences with this brilliant and kind-hearted man–who was soft-spoken but held rock hard convictions—were repeated with countless scholars and colleagues over several decades. Professor Bell touched many, many lives. He is greatly missed.
UPDATE: Derrick Bell Memorial Website