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BIBR talks with Derrick Bell.

Acclaimed legal scholar and civil rights activist Derrick Bell is the author of seven books including Faces at the Bottom of the Well in 1992, which was a New York Times best-seller. Bell, whose controversial protest of Harvard Law School's refusal to grant a black female professor tenure cost him his own position, returns with a new book called Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth.

BIBR: What do you see as challenges to ethical living that are posed by the post-September 11th world that we live in?

DB: There were certainly challenges and opportunities in that devastation, by the horrible deaths of so many people who were full of life. The difference between the obituary page you see every day and the pages that The New York Times ran for weeks [about those killed in the terrorist attacks] was that the obituary page has people who have lived their lives. So many of those who [were killed in the attacks] were right in the full of their lives. Not only was it sad to read about that, it was such a sharp reminder of how life is not promised to us forever, and that we should somehow live our lives with that in mind. I think our leaders for the most part missed that. They did all the usual things in terms of the appropriate words for the survivors, but they immediately then went to the political, in terms of, `How can we turn this to our advantage to do what we wanted to do anyhow, with regard to domestic programs and international programs?'

On the international scene and on the domestic scene, I think most of the leadership missed the point. I think maybe a lot of individuals who don't have power, who are not seeking office, did get that message. I remember one of the widows saying that she didn't want her husband's death to be the cause of ... deaths of many other [innocent people]. But nobody heard that. So I think there was a marvelous opportunity there at the leadership thing.

[American businesses] move the manufacturing plants to these Third World countries where they exploit the people and mess up the environment and just generally create hostility. There were just so many opportunities to make amends, and not simply to retaliate blindly. We devastated a country that was already devastated, looking for two guys, and haven't found them yet--but have killed hundreds, probably thousands. The opportunities are there, but collectively, in terms of the society, we don't take advantage of it. Taking advantage requires a degree of courage and risk. It's easy to say, `We're gonna get `em!' It takes courage to say, `That's not the way we're going to do it'.

BIBR: When you were beginning your career, there were obvious barriers to fairness in society. A kind of obvious path to follow was the legal profession, to help knock down some of those barriers. Today, I feel the picture is a little muddier, and it's a little less obvious where the challenges are, where the enemy is, so to speak. If you were starting out now, would you choose the law, or what profession do you feel is vital to effecting change right now?

DB: I'm not sure that there's any one. I think it's much more the individual. I might choose the law again. I mean, I chose the law not for any praiseworthy reasons, other than it was one of the few things that seemed to be open to black people. And I had models. I had people I delivered the paper to who were lawyers, a judge, and they were always encouraging and welcoming. At that time, you were either a doctor, a lawyer or a preacher. And now the opportunities are much greater. It's really within the individual's determination that `I want to be successful, but I want to be successful and I want to work hard at something I care about.'

BIBR: Somewhat connected to that, you were talking about the importance of models--as a writer, who would you say, if anybody, your influences are?

DB: I've always admired John Kenneth Galbraith, who wrote fiction as well as economics. He writes beautifully, with such grace and power. He is supposed to have said that anyone who says writing is easy is either a poor writer or a goddamn liar. [laughs] The challenge of trying to get [the written word] down the way you want to get it down is something that you come to love, and that you'd rather do than sitting at the ballpark or watching some stuff on TV. Alice Walker writes beautifully. I love the poetry of June Jordan, because there is so much humanity in that woman that came through. But most of my models have not been writers, but people who have taken stands.

BIBR: You have published fiction and nonfiction. How do you compare the challenges and the pleasures of writing fiction versus nonfiction? Or is there a difference for you?

DB: I don't know anything about writing fiction. I just kind of try to say it in ways that will get my message across.

I had left Harvard, and I was dean out in Oregon, at the law school there, and the president of the Law Review called and said they had voted me to write the foreword for the next year's issue. That's one of the really prestigious things that go to the top scholars I didn't think they'd ever [ask] me. Here was an opportunity to talk about race, which I'd been working on all those years, and yet to simply analyze the cases was not going to enable me, at least, to get to what I saw as the truth of the problem. Trying to communicate that truth, it seemed to me, would be easier done through stories, because then the reader could deal with the character in the story rather than immediately coming up with defenses and resistances. And so out of that came the Geneva character [of And We Are Not Saved and Faces at the Bottom of the Well]. And a lot of the points that I made, I just kind of built them into what I call chronicles.

BIBR: You've had a long, distinguished and varied career. Are there areas, either as a writer or other areas professionally, that you feel like you yet want to explore?

DB: I keep working on becoming a good teacher. I'm going to keep on doing it until I can't do it anymore. While my reputation is more as a writer and a kind of troublemaker, I think my major contribution as a professional is teaching.
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Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 2002
Previous Article:Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth.
Next Article:Burning All Illusions: Writings from The Nation on Race.

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