A leading African-American scholar of the law, known for decrying the underrepresentation of minorities in the academy,...


CONFRONTING AUTHORITY: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor

A leading African-American scholar of the law, known for decrying the underrepresentation of minorities in the academy, reflects on protest and race in America. Four years ago, Bell (Law/New York Univ.; Faces at the Bottom of the Well, 1992, etc.), then at Harvard, protested the absence of black women from that university's law faculty by taking an unpaid leave of absence. After much dithering, Harvard failed to hire a black woman law professor; once Bell had taken the two years of leave allowed him by its rules, Harvard fired him, refusing to make an exception for his principled stand. Affecting vignettes reveal how Bell's family inspired and sustained his protest. Accounts of faculty politics, in contrast, find Bell pulling his punches. Rather than settle scores, he seeks to knit his personal and professional experiences into a broad exploration of protest and the responses that it provokes. Alongside of his confrontation with the authorities at Harvard, Bell examines protests by such figures as Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King while weaving into his book -- in a manner familiar to readers of his previous work and to those acquainted with the techniques of ""critical race studies"" -- an allegorical fable in which citizens of a ruling citadel argue over how to treat the downtrodden outside of their walls. Bell illuminates an ugly picture: Protesters become pariahs, true reform may be impossible to achieve, yet struggle is necessary to preserve dignity and self-esteem. If Bell's pessimism seems a bit hyperbolic, his argument lends moral authority to those who exhort us toward social reform -- those such as Bell himself, whose perhaps overdue disillusion with Harvard enables him to forcefully pose questions of how and why the institutional imperatives of power and prestige compromise moral vision. Bell's clearly written jeremiad, with its moving portrait of the author as exemplary protester, will inspire new examinations of struggles in our citadels of power -- perhaps even new protests there.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1994


Page Count: 208

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1994