Professor Derrick Bell, the originator and founder of Critical Race Theory, passed away on October 5, 2011 at the age of 80. Around the world he is considered a hero, mentor, friend and exemplar. Known as a creative innovator and agitator, Professor Bell often sacrificed his career in the name of principles and objectives, inspiring a generation of scholars of color and progressive lawyers everywhere. Bell resigned a tenured position on the Harvard Law School faculty to protest Harvard’s refusal to hire and tenure women of color onto its law school faculty. For the past twenty years, Professor Bell taught at the New York University Law School.
Professor Bell’s writings seized my imagination while in law school and appeared to me as if “manna from heaven” as a second year student. Bell’s scholarship, including his widely influential books "Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism" and "And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice," resonated intellectually with me like nothing I had ever encountered before. His desire to disaggregate legal scholarship from its traditional moorings and introduce legal storytelling, narrative, parables, and fiction as new and bold forms of legal writing was groundbreaking and dramatically changed the legal academy.
I believe that Bell’s groundbreaking narrative style struck a cord with me because I grew up in Southern California listening to the narrative storytelling of groundbreaking hip hop artists. In “A Furious Kinship: Critical Race Theory and the Hip Hop Nation,” I endeavored to parallel Professor Bell’s influence as the patriarch of Critical Race Theory with the influence of Chuck D and Public Enemy, one of the most important socially conscious hip hop artists and groups to ever emerge. In true Professor Bell fashion, when I had occasion to tell him of my vision of this influential parallel of powerful voices in person, he seemed genuinely delighted by this narrative connection, encouraging me to continue the exploration. Professor Bell will be deeply missed, though his influence will live on for generations.
As my tribute to Professor Bell, I now endeavor to piece together portions of “A Furious Kinship,” so as to pay homage to one of the most influential legal minds to pass through the twentieth century. Part II will examine the parallels between Critical Race Theory and hip hop. Part III will examine the work of Derrick Bell and Chuck D and compare how these voices of power similarly inspired a generation.
andré douglas pond cummings, Derrick Bell: Godfather Provocateur, 28 Harv. J. Racial & Ethnic Just. 51 (2012).