My Sci-Fi Connection With Derrick Bell

Trey Ellis pays tribute to the late scholar's "Space Traders" parable, which he adapted for HBO.


Editor’s note, March 8, 2012: With all of the recently renewed interest in Professor Derrick Bell’s parable, “Space Traders,” The Root has decided to unearth this 2012 essay relating to the film adaption of that story. Scroll down to watch videos of the film.

Professor Derrick Bell, who died on Oct. 6, was a hero of mine even before I was lucky enough to adapt his unforgettable story “Space Traders” (pdf) for HBO, starring Robert Guillaume and directed by Reginald Hudlin. It was part of a three-part 1994 series entitled Cosmic Slop, a sort of Afro-Twilight Zone, introduced by none other than George Clinton. The P-Funk front man with the multicolored hair would be odd company for any other celebrated law professor, but for someone as relentlessly radical as Bell, the two were a perfect match.

“Space Traders” was just one of the jaw-dropping stories from his best-selling collection, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. In it, aliens arrive on Earth promising vast riches and endless resources if America hands over all its black folks. The president and his cabinet debate the offer, including Gleason Golightly, a conservative black economics professor and unofficial adviser.

Golightly tries to reason with his longtime conservative colleagues, but it’s no use. A nationwide referendum is held, and guess what? Bell describes what happens to us in the haunting conclusion to the story:

In the night, the Space Traders had drawn their strange ships right up to the beaches and discharged their cargoes of gold, minerals and machinery, leaving vast, empty holds. Crowded on the beaches were the inductees, some twenty million silent black men, women and children, including babes in arms … Heads bowed, arms now linked by slender chains, black people left the New World as their forbears had arrived.

It was a weighty treat to work with Bell and consult with him on the adaptation. I had followed the professor’s fight for more law professors of color at Harvard Law School somewhat obsessively. The first black tenured professor at the school, he left to protest the absence of black women on the faculty.

My mother had been a Yale law student, a classmate of another brilliant legal mind and creative writer, Yale’s Stephen Carter. She died at the age of 37, but had she lived longer, I imagine her having a career similar to those of these two talented men, thanks to the doors that Bell fought to open.

The courageous stand he took at Harvard, the sacrifice he made for those still waiting in the wings, we should never forget.

As a fellow storyteller, what Bell did that no one has ever done better was to use narrative — specifically, a robust African-American strain — to illuminate some of the most intractable, disturbing and infuriating inconsistencies of life in America for black folks. When I blog about politics, I do my best to channel his wit, drive and anger; to anchor the rage of the political in the lush stream of compelling storytelling.