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Faces at the Bottom of the well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell, $20.00 Harper Collins Publishers
"Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society's well. Even the poorest whites...gain their self-esteem by gazing down on us."
This quote, from Derrick Bell's recent book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well could have been referring to an earlier era in American history, during which Bell fought valiantly for the right to integrated education. The book reveals at drastic change in Bell's moral and political beliefs. Bell holds that not only is racism prevalent today, but it is also not going away.
Bell, who was dismissed by Harvard Law School for refusing to end a two--year leave of absence which he took to protest the lack of a woman of color on the faculty, spoke at the Inn at Harvard last week, answering questions about his reasoning that poor whites want to keep Blacks on the last rung.
Through a series of parables, fictional stories and theories, the law professor uses his book to set up the frightening case for why Blacks still suffer from the effects of racism.
Bell's use of short stories to illustrate his theories makes the book accessible to readers other than the academic elite, and asks thought-provoking questions about the state of race-relations in America today. The writing is occasionally simplistic, but Bell definitely gets his point across.
In one of the more powerful scenes described in the book, a limousine-driver suggests to Bell that whites only help Blacks when the aid will help them, too. "As a matter of fact, regardless of how great the need is he only gives to you when it will do him the most good!" says the embittered character. The conclusion, however, is uplifting and features the singing of a spiritual. It seems that Bell himself wonder if own seemingly bleak outlook has no realistic hope for modification.
At his book reading last week, Bell gave examples of civil rights advances which he said were motivated mainly by white consciousness that it was beneficial to them. Bell argues that the real source of depression is from the world around us, not from his book.
Another story with a depressing twist that turns into elation deals with the questions of a hypothetical Black homeland, which Bell says he sees as a very close parallel to Israel. In this story, a new continent appears on which only African-Americans can survive, and a huge debate ensures in the Black community over whether or not to emigrate.
The idea of a homeland uplifts the Black community "Because they accomplished [the emigration effort] together." The jubilation felt at leaving the America portrayed by Bell is somewhat disturbing, especially when he suggests in another chapter that the (white) government would put the entire Black population into the hands of space aliens in exchange for a solution to America's greatest environmental and economic problems.
The take-home message in Faces, although based on the assumption that not all whites are evil, seems to favor a certain separation of Black and white communities.
However, Bell forgives middle-class Blacks who separate themselves from the underclass because they too face racism, a racism that Bell presumes would rear its ugly head in a moment of crisis.
The interracial relationship between a Black activist and his white doctor also highlights the difficulties caused by intimacy between a Black and white. This chapter does not forget the Black woman's position either, and creates an interesting dialogue between a Black and white woman that hints at the concern in the Black community that white women are a status symbol for Black men.
In another of the rather novel suggestions in Faces which emphasizes a truly divided American society, Geneva Crenshaw (the fictional heroine of this book and his last work, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest For Racial Justice proposes a law which would allow employers to use discriminatory hiring policies as long as they advertise the fact.
He is perfectly capable of coming straight out with his theories, but Professor Bell is at his best in Faces at the Bottom of the Well when he creates a fictional narrative with an eerie, yet plausible, finale.
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