And We Are Not Yet Saved
Wangari Maathai (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011)
Derrick Bell (November 6, 1930 – October 5, 2011)
Marti Kheel (August 25, 1948 – November 19, 2011)
Legal scholar Derrick Bell called his 1987 book on the persistence of racial inequality “And We Are Not Saved,” prefacing the text with this Old Testament quotation:
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
That was more than ever true after this past anguishing autumn, when we lost three people who devoted their considerable gifts to the challenge of saving us from ourselves. They were very different people who used different strategies to tackle different problems, but all three shared two characteristics: the ability to see connections and the generous willingness to act in solidarity with others, even at considerable cost to themselves.
Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, using literally radical (roots in the ground) direct action to empower women, promote democracy, and restore the ravaged environment by planting trees. These efforts brought her into conflict with Kenya’s dictatorial government of the time, and she suffered both slander and imprisonment before seeing her work bear fruit in terms of improved political, economic, and environmental health for her country. In 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize committee saw what Wangari Maathai had seen 30 years before: Everything depends upon ecology.
The outpourings of grief and commendation following the death of Wangari Maathai were so plentiful and eloquent that I found that I had nothing more to say beyond “I second that emotion.” I was heartened to see how many heartfelt eulogies were written by men and also by how many young women vowed not only to carry the work forward but also to be what Wangari Maathai’s story tells us that any of us can be: Somebody who sees what she is in a position to do and then does it. That’s lucky, because we’re going to need about a million Wangari Maathais to restore the equilibrium of our dangerously unbalanced economies, psychologies, and ecosystems.
To learn more about Wangari Maathai, read her book The Greenbelt Movement or her memoir, Unbowed. The Greenbelt Movement continues and has launched the international “I am the Hummingbird” campaign for people to plant tree’s in Wangari Maathai’s memory.
Distinguished scholar and righteous brother (in the truest sense of that term) Derrick Bell authored accessible books on race and rights and broke numerous color bars in his own profession but was most well-known for giving up the power he had worked so hard to get if women were not given equal opportunities. In 1985, he resigned his position as dean of the University of Oregon School of Law in protest of the school’s refusal to hire an Asian-American woman. In 1990, by then Harvard’s most prized professor of law, Bell took an unpaid leave of absence, stating that he would not return to the classroom until the law school hired an African American woman for a tenured position. It took Harvard Law until 1998 to do that, by which time Bell was long-gone–Yup, he actually gave up that job, taking his prestige, scholarship, and teaching abilities elsewhere.
Equality for women will mean that men have to give up some of their unearned privilege. Perhaps for that reason, very few men bother to even talk the talk of women’s rights. Far fewer walk the walk, particularly if it takes them out of their way. Derrick Bell walked. And walked. (He also spoke up for chickens at least once, identifying himself in a letter to KFC as “a person who is concerned about all injustices.”)
Bell’s books are engaging and accessible. As a founder of “Critical Race Theory,” Bell was among the first to bring vivid story-telling into the realm of legal scholarship. If, like most Americans, you’re fuzzy on the details of how the Constitution (and etc.) came to be, you need to read Derrick Bell. I can’t recommend And We Are Not Saved strongly enough. And let’s try to emulate not only Derrick Bell’s willingness to divest himself of unjust privilege but also his dedication to sharing facts and ideas in ways that everybody can understand.
From the moment I met Feminist for Animal Rights co-founder Marti Kheel, and throughout our friendship, I was struck by her sincerity in all things. When I say that Marti was sincere, I mean to tender the highest accolade I can give, because I do believe that our chief task in these troubled times is to be true. Marti was exactly what she purported to be without pretense or self-aggrandizement. Marti was a real-deal feminist. She didn’t just write words about women in the abstract. In ways that nobody other than those involved will ever know, she stood strong in solidarity with specific women, offering compassion and support as antidotes to violence. Similarly, Marti was a real-deal animal advocate, consistently putting her professed ethics into practice.
We can best remember Marti by being sincere, by which I mean putting our professed values into action. Visit the tribute we published on the VINE Sanctuary blog for ideas about how to remember Marti with action. For a more comprehensive summary of Marti’s work than I can offer, let let me refer you to this tribute co-authored by a number of her more long-standing friends and comrades.
It’s 11:57. 2011 is over. The tides are rising. And we are definitely not yet saved. Solidarity, generosity, and the ability to see connections are the legacies of three activists who died in 2011. What will you do to carry their work forward in 2012?
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