Printer Friendly

Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester.

Peering through the keyhole into Derrick Bell's latest work incites pithy questions. Is this gussied gossip from an ivy-covered, ebony soap opera? Is it an exegesis on the "intensely personal" decision to "confront rather than conform"? In 1990 Professor Bell threw down the gauntlet at Harvard Law School's refusal to hire qualified African American women for tenured positions. His weapon was the threat to resign. Harvard refused to open the sanctum sanctorum, and in 1992 Bell relinquished his own tenured post in protest. Riddle me this, asks the Sphinx, did the cause justify his sacrifice? Did this battle matter to other black folks and the larger community? Was this an internecine squabble within an elitist guild? Does the book's value depend on the answers to these questions?

Confronting Authority is no match for the tabloids at the checkout counter. Still, you can't relate a tale of intrigue, confrontation, loyalty, apostasy, and conscience without tawdry episodes. If you combine race, gender, status, lawyers, and academics, sordid stories are sure to surface. Bell names names and the discerning reader will identify others without need of a score card, but Laurence Tribe, Charles Ogletree, and Randall Kennedy all figure in the story.

Frederick Douglass said the "turning point" in his life occurred when he confronted a "Negro breaker" and refused to be whipped. "When a slave cannot be flogged he is more than half free." Though Douglass is not mentioned in Bell's volume, his attitude of independence permeates this discussion. Bell cautions that his book is not a manual on confrontations "in ten easy steps." However, he suggests that sharing his "own confrontational experiences may provide a pattern of situation and response that others can identify with and relate to their own lives." As he told the students of Harvard in his final address, "The most important lesson my life experience has taught" is that" ... commitment to change must be combined with readiness to confront authority. Not because you will always win, not because you will always be right, but because your faith in what you believe is right must be a living, working faith, a faith that draws you away from comfort and security and toward risk, when necessary, through confrontation."

Harvard is the catalyst for Bell's book, but he examines the dynamics and "self-affirming power" of protest in other venues. He lauds those who confronted injustice when "moved by a deep sense of the fragility of [their] self-worth." His pantheon includes Dick Gregory, Thurgood Marshall, and Robert Carter. The first line of text describes Gregory's 1960 one-man picket line outside the Olympic Trials at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Gregory felt that his protest against racism had gone unheeded, but years later he learned that Harry Edwards, who attended the trials with his dad, was inspired by Gregory's act to lead the famous 1968 protest at the Mexico Olympics. Bob Carter was a former Thurgood Marshall assistant, NAACP Legal Counsel, and Federal District Court Judge who "served as a model for [Bell's] confrontational tendencies." Bell also praises Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Silkwood, and, surprisingly, Frank Serpico.

Bell rejects the illusion that confrontation is painless. He revels in Alice Walker's refusal to allow editors to savage a text at a vulnerable point in her career: "Surely she knew that for anyone, but particularly for a black woman writing about race, a commitment to guarding one's artistic integrity at all costs is both essential and extremely difficult. The rewards for those blacks willing to tell whites only what they want to hear have always been both a temptation and a destructive trap." Rosa Parks's boycott enables Bell to explore the isolation of the solo protester. He evokes the betrayals of Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois by the "black establishment" to emphasize the painful fate awaiting those who confront authority without a supporting consensus.

But consensus never evolves without leadership. Bell reminds us of the anecdote in which Emerson looks through the window of Thoreau's jail cell and asks, "What are you doing in there?" Thoreau's fabled response supports Bell's thesis: "Emerson, my good friend, what in the world are you doing out there? This is the place for honest men in times like these." This dialogue illustrates another painful pitfall of protest - "the hostile response of friends and associates." Bell draws lessons from Martin Luther King's "Letter From the Birmingham City Jail," recalling that it was inspired by criticisms from liberal clergymen opposed to segregation. These erstwhile allies urged King to abandon the boycott and move more slowly. Dr. King wrote that the clergy's "complacency" impeded progress. King also anticipated Bell's view of the redemptive power of protest, noting a lack of urgency among "Negroes" who through oppression had lost their sense of "somebodiness" and "self-respect." Bell analogizes his experience with unpredictable allies to King's. "The overall response to my protest reflects how much easier it is to be misunderstood by your allies than it is to persuade your opponents.

In fact some black women, including several who might have benefited from a Bell victory, felt that any appointment resulting from his protest would be tainted and not based on "merit." Bell delicately addresses this argument, reminding his "allies" that "most of us in law teaching - whatever our qualifications and potential - are the beneficiaries of pressures, past and present, on campus and beyond." Bell treats their affirmative action pathology gently. He might have prescribed Oscar Brown, Jr.'s calculation from "Forty Acres and a Mule":

.... interest's got to go on just like rent I may be crazy but I ain't no fool one hundred years of debt at 10% per year per forty acres and per mule now add that up wooee looka' there no wonder y'all call great grandma a jewel just pay me that and call the whole thing square yes, lawdy, forty acres and a mule

He could have followed this cure with a dose of Dr. King's Birmingham "somebodiness" tonic.

Racial and sexual intolerance were essential elements of Harvard's resistance. It is hard to ignore the fact that, in order to admit white males, Harvard covertly amended rules which had barred tenure for black women. However, race provides only a partial explanation for academic intransigence. The need to confront both authority and the inner self reflects both ebony and ivy realities.

Bell pulls the covers from generic legal/academic humbuggery, revealing an antipathy to hiring talented teachers or distinguished practitioners whose backgrounds do not include "law review" at prestigious schools or equally prestigious clerkships. He also shines a searching light on the hypocritical misuse of tenure to shield academia from unconventional or troublesome thinkers. This abuse mocks tenure's origin as protection for radicals and non-conformists.

The first glance through the keyhole causes the eye to blink at the self-congratulatory texture of Bell's work. Deeper scrutiny reveals Bell's unflinching candor about his strengths and weaknesses and those of friends and foes. Initial discomfort fades on the realization that Bell has simply abandoned the protocols of false modesty and white lies. The vista is appealing because Bell's prose is unpolluted by those fatal linguistic toxins "legalese" and "academese." This style is abetted by the introduction of each chapter with a section of his parable of The Citadel. Its history parallels Bell's struggle against the citadel of American legal education.

Bell's book is elevated beyond pleasant voyeurism by its pedagogical value. The lesson offered is that mental health requires the willingness to risk comfort and privilege to confront unjust authority. This curriculum is needed by the legions of otherwise decent folks who find excuses for inaction when confrontation jeopardizes their privileges, behavior this century has witnessed in horror at its Birminghams and Nuremburgs.

Bell's wife Jewel, who died from breast cancer shortly before his boycott, posed a question worthy of the Sphinx. When Bell announced his intention to confront Harvard because if its mistreatment of others she asked, "Why does it always have to be you?" This book is Bell's answer.

Reviewed by Raymond M. Brown Newark, New Jersey
COPYRIGHT 1996 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Brown, Raymond M.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Previous Article:The Word in Black and White: Reading 'Race' in American Literature, 1638-1867.
Next Article:Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society.

Related Articles
Urban Protest in Seventeenth-Century France: The Culture of Retribution.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
City/Region Digest.
Crush of protesters rings the globe.
IRAN - June 12 - Washington 'Applauds' Protests.
Turning Grief Into Gratitude.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters