Review: Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick A. Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bell uses allegoric storytelling to explore the legal, cultural, and philosophical racial underpinnings of American white culture and its impact on black identity and methods of surviving in this hostile racialize structure. His approach in many ways reminds me of the philosophical dialogues that we see in the works of Plato and the like. They are sometimes clear and simple settings and other times fantastical, but with each, the story's context and the fictional protagonist (Bell, himself) engages in a tete-a-tete with other characters including one recurring character, Geneva Crenshaw. Through these discussions and thought experiments, Bell draws upon the legal and cultural history as well as contemporary thinkers such as Kimberley Crenshaw and bell hooks to which help him explain a nuanced understanding of race, racial power structures, freedom, and oppression in the US. Though published in the 1990s, his writing still holds water today in his sophisticated takedowns of how racism is leveled in the US. His final and most well-known story, The Space Traders is a haunting tale to consider in a post-Trump era. The story's premise is that aliens come to the US and offer unforetold riches to the American government if they will hand over all of their African Americans. To no surprise, it is a matter of when, not if, they will be handed over. In some ways, Bell feels like a prophet of the 2016 election, arguing that when given a clear choice, white America will choose the racist and xenophobic route, particularly if promised riches and security. I can't believe I waited this long to read Bell's work as it has been a repeated invocation in dozens of books and I can certainly understand now having finished it. What I like particularly about it is that Bell's story format makes it more accessible and comprehensible than some of the more dense texts that I've read elsewhere. He uses story to capture the essence of the issues and portray them in ways the readers connect will find expansively applicable.
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