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Afrolantica Legacies. – book reviews

Like the mythic lost nation chronicled in the title and opening
chapter, this book offers much in the way of promise. It, after all,
was writ ten by one of the foremost critical legal scholars and
academic activists of this era, New York-cum-Harvard University’s
Derrick Bell.

Yet, in much the same way that the nirvanic island “Afrolantica”
eludes the African American expatriates who pursue it, Afrolantica
Legacies sinks heavily, anchored by the weight of heavy dogma. After a
few intriguing segments, the book plunges headlong into the depths of
an all-too-familiar diatribe — ebbing and falling not on its intent,
which is admirable, but on its tendency to rehash.

Although Afrolantica Legacies is classic Derrick Bell, it is not
until the very end of the book — indeed, in the “Acknowledgments”
following the endnotes and index — that readers realize the
not-so-awful truth: this book is not a new birth; rather, it is a
rebirthing. Bell reverberates foundational progressive doctrines to the
point (almost) of ennui. The book thus emerges not as a phoenix-like
revelation, but as a vulturization of previously presented themes and

There is still much to be heralded here, but perhaps only by novice
readers. For more knowledgeable readers, little is novel about
Afrolantica Legacies despite Bell’s frequent attempts to mix fiction
with fact and the real with the surreal. The result is a strange
oil-and-vinegar blend of quasi- and authentic legal and social
criticism that is often less than profound or valuable to those who
already “get it.”

This book is lost on those who are already aware of the phenomenal
losses Bell describes that have accompanied the equally phenomenal
gains African Americans and other people of color have made since the
1950s. It is lost as well on those who, like Bell, steadfastly-maintain
and do not need a degree in rocket science to conclude that racism may
well be a permanent part of the American scene. In short, nothing is
new under the sun in Afrolantica.

Readers are reintroduced to Geneva Crenshaw, Bell’s Black
feminist/womanist alter ego, whose superhuman powers of intuition and
intellect include (wow!) the ability to put words in the mouth of an
American president (whose name I won’t reveal but whose initials are
“Bill Clinton”).

He also recapitulates yet another — and because of that, perhaps
less than provocative — parable of race relations featuring the
colored, domineering inhabitants of the Citadel and their ivory-hued
Lowlander serfs. This conflict originated in Bell’s 1994 Confronting
Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protestor.

Readers also learn from the back pages of Afrolantica Legacies of
Bell’s fictive encounter with Black aliens from outer space in the
chapter “Chrara’s Enlightenment,” and of his efforts to link the themes
of the legend of Blackbeard to Black American realities — which
originated in his previous law review articles.

Bell also continues — by overemphasis, if not by innovation — to
offer harsh indictments of the American legal system and critics of the
Civil Rights movement in his contrived presentation of a conversation
about affirmative action and what-not with a stereotypically “crazy”
Black indigent and a Jewish academic.

And what of the legacies themselves? Bell reveals post hoc that
these ideas were first percolated in an earlier text — his 1992
offering, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.
The legacies confirm Bell’s penchant for lists. In other writings, he
has offered his “Rules of Racial Standing” — five deftly worded
truths-most-evident that speak to the realities of Black Americans’
encounters with the U.S. legal/justice system. The legacies are simply
more of the same — Black political homilies which are resounding but
not astounding; true, but not terrifically so.

As the first Black man to receive tenure at Harvard, Bell protested
that elite institution’s hiring policies — specifically, its failure
to hire a Black woman law professor — and was fired for his pains in
1992. For these actions and commitments, he is to be admired and his
offerings of wisdom certainly welcomed. But Afrolantica Legacies missed
the mark for those seeking to go farther.

The book does fill an important niche, however. It is perhaps best
served up as a required or supplemental text for high schoolers and
early college-going young folk whose budding political activism astute
professors or others might wish to steer in the direction of race
relations. From Derrick Bell’s example and offerings, in this and other
works, emanates an abundance of depth and reasoning. Plus, his erudite
voice cries forth in the wilderness with footnotes and full
documentation! Black, White, and other evolving intellectual spirits
can emulate or draw force from his ideas and from there, perhaps forge
a resonant voice of their own.

Thus, all is not lost in the lost world after all. Atlantis, Afrolantica — for some, the voyage will be well worth the trip.

D. Kamili Anderson is the associate editor of the Journal of Negro
Education, a co-editor of the Encyclopedia of African-American
Education, and a former staff writer for Black Issues In Higher

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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