Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism” as Want to Read:
Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

4.36  ·  Rating details ·  910 ratings  ·  93 reviews
The noted civil rights activist uses allegory and historical example to present a radical vision of the persistence of racism in America. These essays shed light on some of the most perplexing and vexing issues of our day: affirmative action, the disparity between civil rights law and reality, the “racist outbursts” of some black leaders, the temptation toward violent reta ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published October 6th 1993 by Basic Books (first published 1992)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Faces at the Bottom of the Well, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Faces at the Bottom of the Well

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.36  · 
Rating details
 ·  910 ratings  ·  93 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
Robert Owen
Apr 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Okay, I’ll admit it. I wanted to hate this book. Understanding its general themes, depressing conclusions, and fatalistic prescriptions for action, I found myself formulating counterarguments to what I had assumed to be Bell’s ideas before I had even cracked the cover. I knew this was dumb as I was doing it, but screw it, I did it anyway. While I finished the book disagreeing with many of Bell’s conclusions and thoroughly rejecting the wisdom of his proposed response, I nonetheless found myself ...more
Randie D. Camp, M.S.
Read chapter nine for a grad class. In this chapter "Space Traders" come to America and offer our Nation much needed resources and relief from debt and ask for all Black citizens in return...needless to say, I was not shocked by American's response to this offer.

Here are my thoughts on the chapter:
Sadly, the ending of this chapter did not shock or surprise me. It was apparent from the first meeting with the President and the professor that the Nation would accept the offer of the Space Traders.
Nov 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: folks who think we have overcome
Recommended to Jude by: bill stewart
a bright blow to the brain. this is not great writing necessarily - it is insightful and provocative thinking. this book changed my imagination and has stayed with me as few others have - that's as good as it gets for me. ...more
May 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Really fascinating and allegorical musings on America's deep racial problems. I had the pleasure of taking Derrick Bell's class in law school, but I hadn't read this book. Bell is really pessimistic about American racial progress. I really wish he were around today to update this book. I imagine he would say "I told you so" (that is, if he were a petty person). ...more
Mar 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book is very good. It is a series of science fictional short stories that illustrate Bell's thesis that Black people are not and will never be considered a part of America by white people.
The book benefits from his vast knowledge of constitutional as well as American history. Multiple stories talk about possible ways that White people are preparing to sacrifice Black folks for their collective advancement all culminating in a story that puts two choices before the nation. The choice is to h
Desera Favors
May 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Although this book is fiction it is very essential to the movement. I was introduced to this book my sophomore year in college where I was training to be a student anti-racist organizer. The book assists to prepare its reader for events that have and will continue to take place within the anti-racist Black Nationalist movement. Although the stories are some what fantasy like it does a good job analyzing the struggles in organizing. This book is formatted like a series; although none of the stori ...more
Sep 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book surprised me: though Bell is one of the core voices in a canon I've spent much of college reading and discussing, I had not yet encountered his major (and provocative) conclusion. (I would summarize this conclusion--the book's thesis--as: racism is a permanent feature of the United States, unfixable regardless of the efforts of civil rights lawyers and activists; in order to 1) make meaningful progress toward racial justice and 2) find meaning even in an unwinnable struggle, "we" must ...more
Terri Lynn
May 13, 2014 rated it did not like it
I had to read this for a graduate seminar. It is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever read. Derrick Bell was fired from Harvard University for refusing to work for 2 years because he wanted fr Harvard to hire more blacks. This book is a politically correct, whiny, crybaby book, where instead of just presenting his ideas, he pretends he is talking to a black woman named Geneva, having an encounter with a black loving white woman in the woods, having bizarre dreams, etc none of which he a ...more
The short stories in 'Faces at the Bottom of the Well' serve as allegories conveying Derrick Bells thesis that racism is a permanent part of American society. The fictional tales, buttressed by real examples of judicial opinions, prominent figures and historical events, stretch the limits of the reader's imagination. Many of the tales may seem unlikely or inconceivable, but the compelling idea is that they are but a step away from that which actually happens.

I greatly enjoy digesting Bell's arg
Oct 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Love the analysis of racism in this book, as well as the vignettes. The last chapter, called The Space Traders, is one of the most moving scenarios I've ever read in terms of how America would deal with African-Americans if they were presented with the option of getting rid of blacks without obvious consequence. Great read, in my opinion. ...more
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Professor Bell was a brilliant man. This book was outstanding!
This book is SO GOOD. Many of the stories take on a personable, didactic, conversational feel in the vein of Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael”. Within that framework, the author drops some SERIOUS truth bombs. I swear I highlighted every other page. Not only that, but the stories themselves are extremely thought provoking. As soon as I finished the book (which I read in ebook format from the library), I ordered a copy because I want to read it again and highlight everything so I can keep processing. Seri ...more
Lance Eaton
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) enga ...more
Nine teaching parables. Several are of great and terrible power. I had read the most great and powerful of these, Space Traders, somewhere along the road. I had not realized, then, it is explicitly framed by the very first parable that got me in the gut, Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Both explore the moral consequence of knowing your community’s welfare is bought by the coin of someone else’s misery. Neither offer much in the way of hope or heroic action for us all to look to/get ...more
Susan B.
Nov 23, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Derrick Bell is sometimes said to be the founder of Critical Race Theory. Instead of using elitist legal jargon, he uses compelling stories to expose the problems caused by the seemingly permanent racism underlying U.S. constitutional law and politics. His stories are often quite tragic, but he always provides at least a tinge of hope in the meaning that can come through suffering as well as in community bonding. He has many books of this type, but this, the second in the series, is my favorite.
Jul 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone! esp those interested in race/law
Recommended to Jonathan by: UCB
Shelves: academic
Wow!! Incredible!! Just when I thought theres nothing new under the sun when it comes to the ol' racism narrative, I'm so grateful to have 'stumbled' upon this book! As abhorrent as the idea is, I find it encouraging to consider that racism is a permament feature of our society, as the author argues, because it implies a different and maybe a more effective way to struggle against it. Nothing less than inspiring... ...more
Rob Caroti
Aug 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
This was a really interesting book meant to challenge perceptions and attitudes about race and facilitate debate. Bell explores several themes in the form of short allegorical stories including emigration, civil rights legislation, interracial relationships and affirmative action. If looked at purely as a work of fiction, Face at the Bottom of the Well is clearly weak. Some of the stories are so beyond the realm of possibility that they are distracting to the (this) reader; but at the same time ...more
Shannon Wyss
Apr 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
A very sobering portrait of the intractability of racism in the US. Bell makes a convincing case, through a series of mostly-gripping short stories, that racism is so embedded in the US that it can never be eliminated. The conversations in the stories are often very stilted since Bell uses them to convey a lot of facts about the structure of racism in this country. But if you can get past that stiltedness, the stories are great. The last one in the book, "The Space Traders," should be required r ...more
The permanence of racism. Will we never come out from under this?

For over three centuries, this country has promised democracy and delivered discrimination and delusions.

I don't have first-hand experience of that, but I've learned enough to know the truth of it. But will we never be able to erase racism? At least at a national level so that everyone - since we are all created equal - have the same rights and privileges? Have the same opportunity and ability to pursue happiness? I don't know. I
Caleb Ingegneri
Apr 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Bell's attention to the order of learning in this combines brilliantly with storytelling and research. Read Faces closely, over, and over again — it's worth it. ...more
Adam Shields
Dec 01, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Summary: A classic book by one of the originators of the Critical Race Theory movement. 

A few weeks ago, I presented an intro to Critical Race Theory to my Be the Bridge group. The presentation is available here. While I created it with the intention of it having many links to articles and podcasts for further investigation, it was designed to be in addition to my audible presentation. It is of only mixed value without any audio. One of the group's co-leaders suggested that I read Faces at the B
Nov 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
In Gods name we all should read this book to understand divisive as human nature. We are not racist for the hate of others but rather the fear of what the "other" may or will do that changes our current position or removes the masks we all hide behind and the lies we tell to keep us safe.

"...The burden of knowledge", is my favorite reference from this book. Although one sided in his view of the permanence of racism for African Americans I received this book as a broader permanence of bias, just
Oct 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
glad i finally took the time to read one of the seminal texts in critical race theory - i could see the foundations of many ideas/concepts that i've seen discussed in more recent work (most obviously being interest convergence theory). i loved bell's use of stories/allegories to drive home his central thesis - allowed him to set up and play out an "extreme," "worst/best case" situation as a means of anticipating counter-arguments to his ideas. ...more
Emmanuel Garcia
Sep 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I read this book backwards. It was incredibly moving to start off with "Space Traders," a story which imagines the ultimate sacrifice of black lives to "safe guard" white prosperity.

I found the discussions on symbols and realism enlightening and touching. It is a profound meditation on the ways in which Black Americans have lived (and sometimes thrived) under constant explicit and implicit threat.
Sep 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
If you want to know why white supremacy in the world will never end, you can find out in this book from the point of view of a civil rights lawyer and professor. He uses easy to manage stories that are interesting and they may even make you angry and sad. Btw, professors are so sexy. I can't wait till my boyfriend becomes one in real life. ...more
Apr 20, 2009 rated it liked it
Derrick Bell is brilliant but I found the style in Faces at the Bottom of the Well to be uninspiring. However, the thesis, that racism is a permanent fixture in United States society that is integral rather than vestigial is one that many must chew on before espousing the ludicrous declaration that the Obama-Phenomenon has birthed a post-racial America.
Carly Brown
Jan 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
While teaching the tenets of Critical Race Theory, this book used historical, fictional examples to illustrate racism in America. This book challenged me to analyze racism in America more deeply and revealed so much about racism as an institution in society. The fictional examples also really helped me grasp each concept.
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
By my beloved late Law Professor Bell. I didn't read this book at the time I was his student but it feels as important as ever in the age of Trump. A persuasive critique of the traditional civil rights movement strategies, I will always consider his unique perspective and stances - and commitment to them, inspiring. I miss you DB. ...more
Tony Bowers
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A poignant and accurate illustration on race that unfortunately stands the test of time. Without completely rebuking racial equality, the author presents a compelling perspective that demands serious contemplation and leaves the reader questioning his or her role in the great epic battle of racial equality.
Oct 06, 2011 marked it as to-read
Derrick Bell, a legal scholar who worked to expose the persistence of racism in America through his books and articles and his provocative career moves — he gave up a Harvard Law School professorship to protest the school’s hiring practices — died on Wednesday in New York. He was 80.
« previous 1 3 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States
  • Critical Race Theory, An Introduction
  • The Racial Contract
  • The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
  • We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America
  • The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart
  • Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree
  • We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
  • Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America
  • Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
  • All the Devils (Livia Lone #3)
  • Funny, You Don't Look Autistic: A Comedian's Guide to Life on the Spectrum
  • My Life, My Love, My Legacy
  • Race Matters
  • Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland
  • Are Prisons Obsolete?
  • An African American and Latinx History of the United States
See similar books…
Derrick Albert Bell Jr. was the first tenured African-American professor of law at Harvard Law School and is largely credited as one of the originators of critical race theory (CRT). He was a visiting professor at New York University School of Law from 1991 until his death. He was also a dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. [wikipedia]

News & Interviews

Psychological thrillers that will leave your head spinning. Cold cases, detectives hot on a trail, unreliable narrators, and a dash of poison...
157 likes · 90 comments
“Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform.” 48 likes
More quotes…