Derrick Bell (1930-2011) was a law professor, author, civil rights worker and a dreamer. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a working class family, Bell was the first member of his family to go to college where he earned an A.B. from Duquesne University in 1952. Later while attending the University of Pittsburgh Law School, Bell joined the ROTC and eventually went to Korea as a soldier in the U.S. Air Force. In 1959, he was hired by the U.S. State Department, but when he refused to resign his membership to the NAACP, he eventually left that position. Bell held several prominent positions in his life. Around 1960, he was hired by Thurgood Marshall to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, then in 1966 he was named deputy director of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and in 1968 he became a teacher at UCLA’s Western Center on Law and Poverty. In 1971, Bell became the first tenured African American professor at Harvard Law School and from 1981-1985 he held the position of dean at the University of Oregon Law School, another first for an African American.
Bell was a strong proponent of equality and had a high moral standard throughout his professional life, as exemplified by his refusal to leave the membership of the NAACP in his early years (under the request of the U.S. State Department) and eventually his protests and resignations from two law schools, University of Oregon and Harvard over their non-equal hiring practices and lack of tenure appointments of minority women.
Bell, as an author, was also a reputable force. The text, “Race, Racism and American Law”, 1973 is still a standard text in law schools today. Bell also wrote several other books in his lifetime including “And We Are Not Saved”, 1992, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well”, 1992, “Gospel Choirs”, 1996, “Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor”, 1996, “Constitutional Conflicts”, 1997, “Afrolantica Legacies”, 1998, “Ethical Ambition: A Life of Meaning and Worth”, 2002 and “Silent Covenants”, 2004. In academic circles, Bell was also well known for his work on “Critical Race Theory” of which he originated. In it Bell proposed an academic approach to the study of the relationship between race, racism and power, especially in regards to American legal system. He also proposed, using this theory, a way to change these relationships for the purpose of liberation from the confines of racism and its typical power structures.
It was his short story, in 1992, however that came to my attention in 2003 when I first saw the film adaptation of it, which was included in Reginald and Warrington Hudlin’s television anthology film “Cosmic Slop” produced in 1994 for HBO. It proposed an ultimate “What If?” speculative fiction story. What if aliens came to the earth, specifically to the United States, and proposed the ultimate exchange:
“gold, to bail out the almost bankrupt federal, state, and local governments; special chemicals capable of unpolluting the environment, which was becoming daily more toxic, and restoring it to the pristine state it had been before Western explorers set foot on it; and a totally safe nuclear engine and fuel, to relieve the nation’s all- but-depleted supply of fossil fuel. In return, the visitors wanted only one thing-and that was to take back to their home star all the African Americans who lived in the United States.”
Needless to say the short story is filled with all the “peculiar” conflicts of drama and history with which our country is not unfamiliar. The story is told through the perspective of Gleason Golightly, a consultant to the conservative American president and the only Black presence in the white house, (save probably the servant staff, though they are not mentioned). When the digitally enhanced Reaganesque looking and sounding alien makes his offer to the United States, the elite and various power structures of the country quickly delve into a nationwide conversation offering up the pros and cons of making the trade while the administration holds it tongue before making public declarations. Corporate America opposes the trade because of how it will affect its bottom line – arguing that Blacks are 12% of the population but spend a higher percentage of their income than other groups and also that those business sectors like the Prison Industry are dependent on the imprisonment of, esp. Black males to stay profitable. Religious leaders, specifically, Evangelicals, rally in support of the trade because they have morally justified it as “God’s Will”, a blessing and a test of their faith. They even pre-create an enactment of the event by hiring and paying Black people to play roles depicting them being loaded upon the space ships. Those opposed to the trade include members of the American Jewish communities, who form a group called the Anne Frank Committee and who, while arguing that the trade is a sort of “Final Solution” for African Americans and who plan to have safe houses around the country to hide Blacks, secretly worry that without the presence of Blacks in the country, that anti-semitic sentiment among white Americans will grow. There are also groups that use the Constitution, to try to build arguments pro and con of the trade. Those opposed argue that if Blacks are allowed to be taken, then it opens it up for other groups to be taken. Those for the trade, actually draft a new, 27th amendment which reads:
“Without regard to the language or interpretations previously given any other provision of this document, every United States citizen is subject at the call of Congress to selection for special service for periods necessary to protect domestic interests and international needs.”
All in all, it is Golightly, who is in an unlikely position to largely influence the outcome. Because of his token proximity to the President, he is present at the first meeting of the President and his cabinet when they are brainstorming ideas about the situation. In addition, Golightly, though regarded as a sell out and “Uncle Tom” by Black leaders in the country because of his past conservative stances, also gains five minutes to speak at an emergency meeting of these leaders. Ultimately, Golightly is flat out rejected by both camps. He is later promised help by the President to save his and 99 other prominent Black families to leave the country before the vote on the ratification of the 27th Amendment.
In the end, the popular vote of the country is 70% pro and 30% con to send all Blacks with the aliens and to mix insult with injury it happens on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, probably the last one this alternate America will ever see.
In a certain sense and because of its framing of race as a plot device, Bell’s story immediately brought to mind Ray Bradbury’s short, “The Other Foot” from his anthology, “The Illustrated Man”, 1951. Bradbury’s story concerns the inhabitants of Mars, black people, formerly of Earth, who emigrated to Mars because of the racism and inequality on their home planet and their decision of whether to allow the last remaining and endangered human inhabitants from the dying Earth planet, white people, to live with them on the red planet. And though, Bradbury, wrote another story, “Way in the Middle of the Air”, 1950 that posed a similar scenario for Blacks as Bell’s story, it lacked the intricate conversations around race and racism, that Bell proposes.
In all, Bell’s short story really made me think about the complicated political, legal, religious and economic explanations that some people and groups will go through, to really avoid the main issue, that the practice of racism is a real and powerful motivator in American society, even today.
“Space Traders” as part of the SF anthology, “Cosmic Slop” was directed by Reginald Hudlin in 1994.