Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell

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Faces at the Bottom of the Well

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In FACES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WELL, Derrick Bell extends a perspective first developed in his 1987 book, AND WE ARE NOT SAVED. Bell, a professor of Law who left a position at Harvard to protest the absence of black women on the faculty, believes that American racism is irremediable and far more capable of regressing to previous extremes than most people, white or black, wish to admit. His message, however, is not one of despair. For Bell, the permanence of American racism is a challenge which black Americans can and ought to meet head on.

As in his previous book, Bell uses mythical characters and situations to illustrate both the futility of depending on white America for equality and the creative ways in which black Americans must cope with the failure of their country to yield racial justice. Topics include an African American homeland, interracial marriage, racial realism, and a racial “final solution.” In each episode, Bell combines fictional situations with a modest amount of legal analysis to look at issues from a fresh, often daring perspective.

While Bell is no great writer of fiction, his modus operandi in this book is successful. His myths hold the reader’s attention, bringing issues into focus with great clarity.

Whether or not one agrees with Bell’s diagnosis of what ails us racially and how incurable it is, his work is thoroughly compelling. For one thing, it faithfully expresses the feelings of many black Americans. For another, it serves as a prod to creative, committed social reform. After all, what a wonderful triumph it would be to prove Bell’s thesis about the permanence of racism dead wrong.