“Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well. Even the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above, gain their self esteem by gazing down on us. Surely, they must know that their deliverance depends on letting down their ropes. Only by working together is escape possible. Over time, many reach out, but most simply watch, mesmerized into maintaining their unspoken commitment to keeping us where we are, at whatever cost to them or to us.”
This collection of short stories and essays by Derrick Bell highlight the main theme of this book which is in the title: the permanence of racism in America.
Faces at the Bottom of the Well is basically Bell’s thoughts that racism is a fundamental part of America, mended to its’ roots so that it is always part of the nation’s identity. There is no way to “erase” or “move past” racism in America because it is the very foundation on which the nation was built. I read this for the first time in my freshman year of college. One of my professor’s recommended it to me, siting that Bell’s use of fiction to talk about current societal problems was similar to my own writing I did in her class. She thought I could benefit from the read, which I did.
It’s usually not something I would read, especially at that age and time in my life. However, I trusted my professor’s opinion and picked up a copy. At the time, I was still battling with a lot of self hate which was linked to my blackness and was just working on the journey to get through that. I think reading this really dug into me and was probably the best book for me at the time. It especially made me understand something about the country I lived in and opened my eyes. I will say, a lot of the scholarly writing went over my head, though I could still grasp the core message.
And it’s a sad message, indeed, but something I did agree with Bell on and have ever since I read it. His most famous short story in the book (and my favorite) is his last, The Space Traders. I remember reading it and getting to the end and not thinking, “That’s unrealistic,” but rather, “I can see that happening.”
There is a lot of critique of Derrick Bell and what he has written and/or said, including the theoretical framework of Critical Race Theory on which Faces at the Bottom of the Well is built on. I don’t know much about Bell outside of what was written in his book and I don’t know much about CRT and it’s critics and upholders outside of the sparse research I have done. My admiration for the book is purely based on what I read and how I read it as a freshman in college. And I can’t deny it was important for me.
A lot of Bell’s essays and ideas are radical and I don’t agree with everything he says and points out in his essays and stories. And, I don’t have to. There will be readers who don’t agree at all with everything he says, but I believe it’s still important to engage with literature and ideas we don’t always 100% agree with. I still agree with his core message though even to this day, that racism is ingrained in what America was, is and probably will always be. Do I think it’s hopeless to continue the fight for equality and our rights? Absolutely not.
Reading this, you get an even stronger desire to want to fight against racism in the places we live and occupy. In my opinion, this is essential reading for everyone. I also highly recommend picking up the version with Michelle Alexander’s, author of The New Jim Crow, foreword.
If you’ve read Faces at the Bottom of the Well, what was your favorite story/essay? What are your thoughts on Derrick Bell’s ideas?