Enter Derrick Bell

Many of the greatest insights about racism have come to me over the years from the writings and personal witness of Derrick Bell, who was in the early years of CCI, struggling against racism in the ivied walls of Harvard Law School. My first meeting with Derrick came at Logan Airport on a morning when I was to fly to Philadelphia to be a “respondent” to his keynote speech at an event sponsored by a group whose name I do not recall. Waiting for boarding time I noted only one black person in the lounge, so introduced myself. His speech was something about school desegregation; my specific job was to comment on the Boston alternative represented in METCO, on whose Board I served. My talk included a strong endorsement of METCO, but I contended that it was a terrible choice forced on black parents by a public system they experienced as failing. The latter point was not met with enthusiasm by the listeners, but I think Derrick appreciated it. We became friends, and over the years I watched and supported his efforts at Harvard, Oregon, Stanford, then Harvard again! Derrick’s influence in my life has been of major importance.

Derrick’s 1987 book, And We Are Not Saved, had a subtitle, The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. Four years later came his Faces At the Bottom of the Well. I noted immediately the subtitle: The Permanence of Racism. In just a few years, Derrick’s thought had moved from Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, to the Permanence of Racism! I raced through the book, and then came the words that leapt into my heart: Derrick told us that accepting the permanence of racism was not an act of submission, but was an ultimate act of defiance !!!!!!! My own essay in response to that idea, has been recognized and appreciated by Derrick, and the idea has become a central one in my view of racism and the work for justice.

Derrick’s view of the Permanence of Racism forced me to a position I had been frightened to assume. Once I took the step to which he led me, in a strange way I felt liberated. In many discussions I had often been asked about when we would overcome racism in this country. I wanted to say that I doubted we would ever overcome racism. In those discussions I felt as if I stood on the brink of a precipice, fearful that such an admission might diminish the will to work against racism. If racism is permanent, why try to eliminate it? Derrick took me to the brink, led me to the truth. Knowing that his dedication to work against racism was not diminished by this conviction became my inspiration.

When I made the jump and accepted “permanence”, the liberation I felt made me wonder if that was what Baldwin had promised when he said that white people would be liberated only when they understood the trap of false history. I was in some peculiar way liberated. Like an alcoholic who knows he must always live with the condition, I still must fight against racism! Despair over failure was no longer an option! Accepting the permanence of racism was not an act of submission, but the ultimate act of defiance. Racism will always be “there”, and I will always raise my fist in defiance of its presence. My dying breath will be a curse against its false life!

Derrick spoke and signed books for us, at a June, 1993 event at the Cabral Center, of the John D.O’Bryant African-American Institute, at Northeastern University.
Derrick’s persistent, consistent witness has paved the path for many, and I count it a huge privilege to claim him as a teacher with whom I have never sat in any class, but whose life is a beacon of hope and inspiration.

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