Book Review

Faces at the Bottom of the Well, The Permanence of Racism

Derrick Bell, Basic Books, 1992
Review by Marina Drummer

In the spirit of our purported "national dialogue on race," it is appropriate to consider Faces at the Bottom of the Well, long one of my favorites on the topic. We, as grantmakers, certainly need to face this topic along with the rest of the nation. Although women have found a comfortable niche among grantmakers, there is still a considerable shortage of ethnicities in our ranks. As arts grantmakers, we also need to remember that the American arts first recognized in Europe and worldwide were the myriad arts forms of black America.

Since I work for a foundation that has focused rather specifically on strengthening cultural institutions within the African American and Native American communities, I tend to read rather heavily in the area of ethnic parity. Despite loud claims that the goals of affirmative action have been reached and that racism is dead in the U.S., physical evidence points strongly to the contrary.

Derrick Bell's fine book on racism continues to show up on required reading lists in black studies classes. Mr. Bell is a visiting professor at New York University Law School. He was dismissed by Harvard after protesting the absence of minority women on the law faculty. He has written several other excellent books on racism in the United States, but Faces at the Bottom of the Well is his finest and most challenging. As he does in several of his books, Bell utilizes an interesting literary device to engage the reader in his difficult topic. He creates allegorical stories as a vehicle in what he terms "...a continuing quest for new directions in our struggle for racial justice, a struggle we must continue if — as I contend here — racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society.”

In Faces, we are reintroduced to the fictional lawyer-prophet, Geneva Crenshaw, who challenges Bell's previous work in the civil rights movement and pushes him to examine new methods of attaining equality. The resulting chapters, each a unique and separate story, are inspiring, provocative, distressing, and completely fresh. I read the book in one sitting the first time I encountered it several years ago, and when reviewing it for this article, I did something I rarely do — I read it cover to cover again and found it just as timely the second time around. This, of course, gives credence to Bell's assertion that “racist structures are permanently embedded in the psychology, economy, society, and culture of the modern world.” Little changes.

Even with the use of fictional allegory, the book is filled with the wisdom of writers, statesmen, and philosophers such as Franz Fanon, Paolo Freire, Gunnar Myrdal, Langston Hughes, John Hope Franklin, Ralph Ellison, and many others. True to his legal profession, Bell also cites clearly and concisely the many court cases and legal rulings dealing with race in the U.S. His intertwining of fictional circumstances with some of the finest thinking on race along with actual judicial rulings gives the reader an opportunity to apply what is to what might be in a creative way.

The nine stories that comprise Faces cover diverse territory: an investigation of the meaning (or lack thereof) of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday; a fable about a newly born island where only blacks can comfortably survive; a tale of interracial romance; a proposal for a “racial preference” licensing act that allows those who prefer segregation to pay for the privilege and that then uses the license funds for black housing and education; a story of an “underground railway” and safe houses for blacks in anticipation of increasing Right wing militia violence; a depiction of “racial data storms” that subliminally reach all citizens not only with the truth and accompanying pain of what it means to be black in this country, but with resulting efforts to create equality; a fictionalized massacre of all the black professors and administrators at Harvard, followed by an increased vigor to diversify the campus; and, finally, a marvelous tour d'force in which a space ship comes to earth to trade — the solution of U.S. environmental and fiscal problems in exchange for all of the country's black citizens.

Not a single chapter in this volume is weak. Each one engages the reader in reconsidering known tactics and strategies toward an equal and just society. If, as Bell states, racism is a permanent part of our society, then, it behooves us to accept this truth, abandon false hope, and instead join to create real solutions to mitigate racism's oppressive weight. I encourage everyone to read this book, consider its message, and, more importantly, consider how we in philanthropy, a field one might assume to be ahead of the curve in dealing with racism, can consider this dilemma in every aspect of our work.

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On a lighter note, over the holiday season, I gave myself the gift of reading outside my field of professional interest. I am delighted to report that the state of contemporary literature is alive and well. The books I read were so utterly entrancing and beautifully written that I recommend taking a break for beauty, and read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, or Underworld by Don Delillo, or Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. You won't be disappointed, and you might even find, as I did, the exquisite joy of being deeply moved by true beauty.