…Such a new narrative, and the people who make it — among whom are included those who pursue equality through legal means — must find inspiration not in the sacrosanct, but utterly defunct, glory of ideals that for centuries have proven both unattainable and poisonous. Rather, they must find it in the lives of our “oppressed people who defied social death as slaves and freedmen, insisting on their humanity despite a social consensus that they were ‘a brutish sort of people.’ ” From that reality, Huggins takes — as do you and I, Geneva — hope rather than despair. Knowing there was no escape, no way out, the slaves, nonetheless continued to engage themselves. To carve out a humanity. To defy the murder of selfhood. Their lives were brutally shackled, certainly — but not without meaning despite being imprisoned.
We are proud of our heroes, but we must not forget those whose lives were not marked by extraordinary acts of defiance. Though they lived and died as captives within a system of slave labor, “they produced worlds of music, poetry, and art. They reshaped a Christian cosmology to fit their spirits and their needs, transforming Protestantism along the way. They produced a single people out of what had been many. . . . Their ordeal, and their dignity throughout it, speaks to the world of the indomitable human spirit.”
–Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well
I taught a few chapters of Derrick Bell’s book this semester. Bell is a critical race theorist. As such, he doubts the efforts of the civil rights project because it relies on a legal system that is predicated on oppression. Any gains in civil rights are illusory and, worse, impede equality, because Americans assume that rights are protected when they are, in fact, woefully denied, while the project of equality is abandoned.
Critical theorists expose power in the system. They do it so well that they reveal a system that is utterly broken, that is built on and sustains oppression. Students who are poised to Change the World are frustrated by this cynicism and impatient with the lack of constructive advice from critical theorists who criticize and reveal power, but don’t offer constructive alternatives.
I regretted that I did not assign the Epilogue, where he addresses such friendly (and frustrated) critics of his work. Bell titles the epilogue, “Beyond Despair.” He explains that if the legal system is not going to achieve equality, then stop waiting for that day. Live now. Live in the struggle. Carve out a humanity. Create. I summarized the epilogue for the students, including the passages above. I told the students that Bell is urging subjugated people to find their freedom within struggle, rather than waiting until it’s over. After all, life is struggle, isn’t it?
I continued on that track, then I noticed that the energy in the room had changed. The students were listening to a professor that they never see. I was talking about much more than racial subordination and the legal system. This was about life. Bell was connecting to the human spirit, I was speaking as a human being.
I paused. “Really,” I concluded, “this is a valuable life lesson.”
DISCLAIMER: I am self-conscious that I, a white woman, redirected Bell’s discussion of slavery to draw life lessons that we can all appreciate. This is such a white thing to do. But I’m okay with it. What came through in the epilogue was Bell’s humanity, and I really needed to hear it and connect with it, and I let my own humanity slip in while teaching the students. While my burden is far, far different, the legacy of my pain will never be over, and why fight it? Live now. Find the beauty now, within the struggle, despite it, because of it.