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What 'Faces at the Bottom of the Well' Teaches About Race

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By Melinda D. Anderson

From an early age my love of reading was inspired by my unbridled imagination. Our neighbors who worked in a field office for the State Department weren’t just government bureaucrats. Obviously, they were spies. Reading Nancy Drew mysteries and later suspense novels complimented my natural and limitless curiosity. Though at some point in my mid-20s I hit a wall. A full-time job and a part-time job to pay for an apartment and student loans cut into my leisure time. So busy “adulting,” my love of reading started to wane.

This is the mood that I brought with me when I relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1994. New job, new city, who’s got time for books?

Enter my friend, Denise, who led a Black women’s book club. The invitation to join her book club was my ticket back to the world of books and reconnecting with my identity as a voracious reader. "Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism" by Derrick Bell was my first assigned book.

Bell, who passed away in 2011, was a catalyst for racial equity. His life, a tribute to activism and courage, was expertly chronicled by The HistoryMakers, which records oral histories of the Black experience.

In 1971, Bell became the first African American to become a tenured professor at Harvard Law School; there he established a course in civil rights law and wrote Race, Racism and American Law, which today is a standard textbook in law schools around the country. Leaving Harvard, Bell became the first African American dean of the University of Oregon Law School, and in 1985, he resigned in protest after the university directed him not to hire an Asian American candidate for a faculty position. Returning to Harvard Law School, Bell would again resign in protest in 1992 over the school’s failure to hire and offer tenure to minority women.

The conversation sparked by Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well among four Black women sitting in a Northeast D.C. living room is as indelible as the book’s content. In education, one of the foundational principles is that understanding and learning is enriched when students learn with and from each other. But not all learning happens in a classroom, and peer to peer education can take many forms. This book club rebuffed light reading fare. Its members – a PhD in social psychology, an English professor at the University of the District of Columbia, and a graduate student – saw the monthly book club as a seminar in raising racial consciousness and saw themselves as social justice teachers.

Faces at the Bottom of the Well
 pierced my perception and views about race and racism in America. It begins with a sobering and illuminating declaration by the author:

"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.”

Bell’s overriding argument is that “racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society…” For this message to come from a civil rights trailblazer and important Black legal scholar is significant and profound. Most striking is the sense of purpose embedded in Bell’s searing conclusion, which is “calculated to lead not to despair but, perhaps ironically, to freedom.” 


As a Black parent and education writer navigating race and racism, Bell’s words remind me that the battle for racial justice is unrelenting and unforgiving. Whether the target is growing segregation and inequalities in our public schools, zero tolerance policies that disproportionately punish Black students, a dearth of racial diversity in recognizing teaching excellence, or teaching practices that leave students of color feeling marginalized and disempowered.

Asserting that racism is an enduring and malignant feature of American life is ultimately liberating – it spurs me to keep striving and pushing for social change. Because as Bell notes, for Black Americans, our story is “less of success than of survival through an unremitting struggle that leaves no room for giving up.”

Melinda D. Anderson is a Washington, D.C.–based freelance writer with a special interest in race, class and educational equity. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter. Read more of her work at

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