The Negro, in the universities and colleges of Europe and America, has to do his thinking and his reading in…the white man’s language…Our environment makes us think white, and some of us think white so persistently that we haven’t the time to think Black. I urge upon you…to help, with voice and pen, to hasten the coming of the morning when Negroes all over this broad land will wake up to the importance of thinking Black. (John Edward Bruce—“The Importance of Thinking Black”—1917}
The academic production of “race theory” is itself fraught with a dishonesty that few care to admit. To speak about race without attending to the very real social, economic, and political consequences of racism, says Barbara J. Fields in “[w]hiteness, Racism and Identity,” is to afford whites a symmetrical parity in our academic discourse that not only contradicts reality, but exposes the very content of our academically approved “race theory” to be little more than the careful arrangement of euphemisms taught to us by our white oppressors to obscure the deliberate machinations of racism. The life of Derrick Bell stands in sharp contrast to this practice, as only a life lived with Black people in mind can. His body of work is not only a testament to John E. Bruce’s call, but a literature that shames, even today, our irreconcilable attempts to rationalize our cowardice and maintain détente with white racists, despite their tyrannical reign throughout the university and in American society.
It is standard practice of scholars to honor their intellectual fore-parents who have been caste into the shadows of history, we eulogize their memories and praise their life’s work as a goal to which we should all aspire, but Derrick Bell’s life is the stuff “Black thought” is made of and resists such “fluffy-ization.” Derrick’s courage rang with the testament of Black thinkers from beginning to end. When I dared to suggest back in October of 2007 that philosophers were trying to make sense of his work next to Marx and Nietzsche, he told me that he considered himself
the academic counterpart of Errol Garner, the late jazz pianist from my hometown, Pittsburgh, who never learned to read music fearing, as I understand it, that it would ruin his style. I think there must be value in Marxist and other writings, but I did not really read them in college and have had little time since. I am writing this in Pittsburgh where I have been celebrating my 50th law school reunion from Pitt Law School. I do care more about the thought and writings and actions of Du Bois, Robeson, Douglass, et al. I think during my talk at UCLA, I read from the 1935 essay by Ralph Bunche about the futility of using law to overcome racism. It made more sense than so much of the theoretical writings on law, past and present, that I can barely understand and have great difficulty connecting with my experience. And you are right. At almost 77, I do not care to write in ways that whites can vindicate.
Throughout our many exchanges concerning his thought, Derrick remained convinced that attacking racism, the deliberate system of social, political, and legal subjugation of Black people, was the task of the Black Intellectual. He believed whole-heartedly that equality, even under Obama, was little more than illusion. In a speech he sent me entitled “On Celebrating an Election as Racial Progress,” he said that
every aspect of Barack Obama’s election and Inauguration has been covered like a heavy rain on a parched landscape. His taking office as the first black president is deemed a racial breakthrough….[but], in our celebrations, we should not confuse progress with fortuity, as we have while celebrating so many earlier unique moments that appeared to signal significant racial advances.
As early as 1976, Derrick Bell had already formulated the basis of his now famous racial realist thesis—the idea that
Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than ‘temporary peaks of progress,’ short lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance”—in the realization that “white self-interest will prevail over [B]lack rights.
Following the teachings of his mentor Robert L. Carter, Bell understood well that integration offered Blacks nothing but proclamations of equality without daring to question the white supremacist organization of society. While the Black bourgeois continue to market the suffering of poor, disenfranchised, brutalized and terrorized Black people as a means to gain visibility and compassion from white gatekeepers, Bell lived a life that demonstrated struggle amidst the permanence of white supremacy, not because he believed in a “mythical hope” in whites’ moral character, but because he saw Afrolantica and knew just as his hero Paul Robeson that Blacks could create a world here in America unseen by the tyrannical gaze of whites and unrecognizable to those who simply cannot “THINK BLACK.”
I will always remain grateful for his friendship; his time, and his patience in helping me understand the totality of his thought while writing my dissertation on his work. He has certainly earned his place at the table of our ancestors. To his remembrance.
Professor Curry teaches and researches philosophy at Texas A&M University