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.
His invention of black civil rights attorney Geneva Crenshaw, his oft-used fictional heroine, was nothing short of genius. Through her he was able to translate complex legal ideas for the rest of us. Through science fiction he was able to entertain while educating. Rarely has a professor been so playful. Just listen to his introduction to Faces at the Bottom of the Well:
At the outset, let me assure her many friends that the lawyer-prophet Geneva Crenshaw, the fictional heroine of And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, has returned […] Here, I again enlist the use of literary models as a more helpful vehicle than legal precedent in a continuing quest for new directions in our struggle for racial justice, a struggle we must continue even if — as I contend here — racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of society.
He goes on to write in the preface:
The challenge throughout has been to tell what I view as the truth about racism without causing disabling despair.
He needn't have worried. Bell told his truths with such audacious verve, such unrestrained flights of fancy, that we were transfixed and transported.
Trey Ellis is a novelist, screenwriter, blogger and associate professor at Columbia University.