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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

October 11, 2011: Remembering An Iconoclastic Genius

I’ve had a request to write a post on or related to or inspired by Steve Jobs, and am still figuring out what I want to do with that but should have it done for one of the next few days. But just as I was thinking about Jobs, I came upon a story about another, and I guess I would say even more impressive and pioneering, American who passed away this past week: Derrick Bell. I emphasize the “more impressive and pioneering” point not to tear down Jobs in any way, but rather because, I am ashamed to admit, I knew nearly nothing about Professor Bell; perhaps I had come across his name at one point or another, but certainly without the kind of emphasis that this amazing life clearly deserves. Check out these biographies (or at least the first and fullest of 'em) and an obituary, and I’ll be here on the other side:

--A couple different biographies of Bell:
--The New York Times obituary:

I’m not sure I’ve encountered a more consistently exemplary and significant American life, and it makes me sad that his passing garnered no national attention. I understand full well how many more people were directly impacted by Jobs’ life and work, a subject that will be part of my in-development take on the man; I likewise understand why some of Bell’s most significant impacts could be seen as more explicitly focused on (if not limited to) scholarly conversations and communities. But on the other hand, Jobs’ choices, whatever else their impacts and meanings, were always made in service of business, of marketing, of profit—whereas Bell was a man who, as the bios and obituary note, quit one of the most sought-after and high-paying (as these things go) scholarly jobs out of a sense of social and ethical obligation. Jobs’ oft-repeated commencement address advice about only following the dictates of your heart, while certainly worth heeding, is a lot less complicated to take when it’s coming from somebody whose choices made his company and himself enormously successful; but when we apply it to a man whose choices cost him a great deal, in every sense, the advice becomes significantly more complex and, perhaps, more inspiring as well.
But leaving all of that aside, Bell’s life still exemplifies what I could call the two most salient American trends of the second half of the 20th (and still the early 21st) century. For one thing, he spent his life as a pioneer in integrating American society—from his very young, single-handed integration of an Alabama church, as retold at the start of the first biography’s narrative, through his lifelong efforts to integrate the faculty and tenure process at Harvard, and in many other ways besides, Bell not only advocated for but in his life and choices embodied the integration of a wide variety of our national and local communities. But at the same time, and despite his consistent arguments for persistent discrimination and racism in American society, Bell’s ideas and ideals reflect a sense of America that includes, from its points of origin on to its present conflicts and possibilities, all races and communities—a vision of a nation that, however much it has tried to deny and exclude many citizens, has instead been fundamentally defined by their presences and perspectives, by both the darkest and yet most potentially inspiring sides of our histories and identities. That is, precisely by working so fully for integration, among his many other lifelong efforts, Bell made plain how fully our nation has always been, in hesitant and partial and incomplete and evolving but still crucial ways, inseparably integrated.

Obviously there’s no limit to how many people we remember, either in their passings or in their lives, and I’ll have more to say about the significance of Steve Jobs’ life and legacy soon. But to my mind the most impressive and inspiring famous American whom we lost last week was Derrick Bell—and the most tragic aspect of his loss is just how little most of us (myself included) knew about him. More tomorrow,

PS. The links are already above, so here I’ll just ask, as usual, what do you think?

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