Today I received the Derrick Bell Award from the American Association of Law Schools Section on Minority Groups. The annual award is named in honor of the late Derrick A. Bell Jr., the first African-American tenured professor at Harvard Law School. The award “honors a junior faculty member who, through activism, mentoring, colleagueship, teaching and scholarship, has made an extraordinary contribution to legal education, the legal system or social justice.” The formal video of the speech won’t be available for a while, but a friend was kind enough to get a screen grab. I was introduced by my friend and colleague Cary Martin Shelby.
Here is a link to the video: https://youtu.be/lrHdOdFRq-8
And here is the text of the speech:
There are so many people to thank for getting me to this award today, literally too many to name because like most I have had a village of supporters who have helped me to navigate this world. I have also had a lot of luck—both through self-made opportunities and through the efforts of others who have helped me to be in the right place at the right time…and most importantly ready for those opportunities when they arise. But, I have to give a special thanks to my W&L colleague, friend, and biggest cheerleader, Cary Martin Shelby, for introducing me and for everything else. Cary seems to remember more about what I’m doing than what I remember about myself, and I am immensely grateful to have someone in my life who genuinely values me and what I do.
As I have given thought to the meaning of this Award, and the reason I was selected, I have given a lot of thought to how I have gotten here. As my biggest critic, what I remember most about my own journey to becoming a law professor are all the people who told me I wasn’t qualified. That I was too old, practiced too long, didn’t focus on the right areas of scholarship, that I went to the wrong schools, and didn’t have the right degrees or the right champions. Most people I consulted told me that at most, if I was lucky, I could adjunct. I personally choose not to hear negativity—it’s my belief that people project their own insecurities and shortcomings onto others—so I ignored all the “you can’ts” and chose instead to say, “I will.” I am here today not just because of my inability to hear the word no, but because with some effort I was able to find people who agreed with me. Those people said to me what I try to say to aspiring scholars, and even aspiring law students—what you are, what you have, and who you are is enough. I use that principle when I work with the women in Lutie and when I champion for my students on campus and in reference letters. What I tell them is your lack of privilege and even your lack of the “right” credentials might mean that it will take you longer, or that you will get there in a different way, but it doesn’t mean that you cannot ever get there. I do not allow my own light to be dimmed by those who don’t know how to shine, and I choose to never dim anyone else’s light.
I do not believe in telling anybody, especially a Black person, that they cannot do anything. I do not see myself as a gatekeeper, nor do I view an aspiring lawyer or scholar as a tool for my own climb. Instead, I remember all of the excellence and all of the extraordinary feats that have gotten us to where we are today. I remember that the Black gatekeeper is a tool of the master whose job is to guard the door, and who receives incremental advances in return for their service. So instead, I choose to be someone who lifts as I climb, who reaches back while looking forward, and who knows that the drive imprinted in my DNA is imprinted in the DNA of others. I do not hold the delusion that I am the smartest or the most talented—I know that instead I am simply less oppressed. And, it is my job, as someone who has worked my way out from under the weight of oppression to liberate others. Seeing more people of color in the academy, especially Black women, is for me a prize more meaningful than this Award. I dream of a world where students see more of themselves at the front of the classroom and where Black women are where they belong in every room—in front. Creating that world involves making space for those who, while not perfect, magical, or super stars, are in fact more than enough.
Derrick Bell gave us so much—a theory for engaging the realities of our world, a blueprint for overcoming the barriers to our profession, and an example of how to make the path easier for the people who follow. His reach is exponential—those he lifted have each lifted others, who are now lifting a new generation of lawyers, scholars, judges, and business leaders. As we navigate these unusual circumstances and unprecedented times, I believe we honor Derrick Bell’s legacy most by taking advantage of the unusual to advance real change. If we all do the same, helping just one of our students or mentees we can continue our exponential reach, making this room bigger than we can even imagine, and reshaping our profession. I plan to think of more simple, yet revolutionary ways to keep lifting, remembering that change is not slow if we all work together to make it happen. The pace of change is an affirmative choice, either to act or not to act. It is not a foregone conclusion.
While I cannot thank everyone, I would like to highlight a few people who, by simply being who they always are and doing what they always do, helped me in this journey. First, Demetria Frank, my BFF from law school, soror, and honorary member of my family, who insisted that I write a paper, do a FAR (which I didn’t get done until the third distribution), and stay in her hotel room. That was the push I needed to get my butt in the chair and write. Helen Jenkins, Shelby Moore, and the other women at South Texas in Houston, who read my early drafts, explained the process, and poor Helen who let me give my first job talk in her office, and didn’t tell me how bad it was. Now that I’m on this side I realize it’s because most people aren’t good at job talks and we all pretend the people we like are good…but that’s another discussion for another day. Catherine Smith, who pulled me out of the FAR and called just to offer support. Catherine modeled for me how one should treat juniors and prospective scholars, and what we all should do when we have a position with power, and for that I am forever thankful. Candace Zierdt at Stetson, who brought me into her VAP program and taught me how to be a professor who also happens to be a good teacher. I wish everyone in the academy had the opportunity to learn how to be a teacher, and how to be an ally, from Candace. And last but not least, the women I call my Cabinet/Board of Directors: Eleanor Brown, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Wendy Greene, and Shontavia Johnson…also known as my No committee. I am truly blessed to have this circle of supportive women who help me to be my best self.
In conclusion, it is my hope that these times and the legacies of those who have gone before us can serve as an inspiration and motivation to lift as we climb, to take the opportunity to do with others what was done for us, and to use what power and status we have to do even more. My path is easier thanks to Derrick Bell. It is an honor and a privilege to continue the work.