By Susan K. Smith,
In his 1992 book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, the late legal scholar Derrick Bell, the first tenured professor at Harvard Law School who gave up his position to protest that institution’s hiring practices, presents an intriguing story.
Bell objected to Harvard’s not having a black female on its tenured faculty. In 1990, he took an unpaid leave of absence, promising not to return until his demand was met. Harvard chose not to extend his leave, and he left to teach law at New York University School of Law.
. In “The Space Traders,” the story referred to above, creatures from another planet come to this country and bargain with those controlling America’s power structure. The creatures will give the American political system an exorbitant amount of money which will pay all of its debt in exchange for this country handing over its African American citizens, who will be sent to outer space.
The white political system accepts the offer.
Sometimes, it feels like it would just be better if there were a way out of the mire of racism. Bell is right; it is not diminishing. Its virulence goes underground from time to time, but it is never gone. Those at the bottom of the well – black people in particular and people of color in general – stay there. The fight to get out is painful and long; when too much progress has been made, as determined by the political structure, it is as though oil is poured onto the walls of the well, making it impossible for continued upward movement to continue.
When we are at the bottom of the well, we feel a sense of hopelessness. Sometimes, we want to merely escape from our misery; going to another planet might sound like the perfect answer to some or to many of us African Americans are at the bottom of the well because of the disease called white supremacy, but we as individuals often find ourselves at the bottom of a well for any number of reasons. We may be there because of an illness which is getting worse instead of better, or there because we do not have the resources to get the health care we need to fight that illness. We can end up at the bottom of the well because we have lost a job or because of a relationship with a friend or lover that just was not good for us or to us.
We know what it is like to try to climb walls onto which oil has been thrown.
The question becomes, “how do we cope?” What do we do when we are at the bottom of the well, where there seems to be no way up and no way out? Ironically, it is when we feel most hopeless that we begin to nurture the seeds of hope which have been planted into all of us. The creator-God did not leave us destitute. In the darkest hours of our lives, the seeds of hope within us, divine gifts from God, beg to grow. Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibilities that “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”
She says that “when you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence outcomes – you alone or in concert with a few dozen or a few million others.” While she is talking about uncertainty in the face of wild and unfair injustice in a political system, the truth is that the same capacity exists for us as individuals.
In other words, the bottom of the well is not the end of the story; it is not the period at the end of the last sentence in our story, but may be the end of one chapter or the beginning of the next chapter of our lives. Hope exists where we least expect to find it.
How we tap into it, or share that thought with others, is the supreme challenge. How does one express the message of hope to Tia Coleman, the woman who survived the duck boat accident that killed her children, her husband, and other members of her family? She is clearly at the bottom of a well. Her well is so deep that she won’t have the capacity for a while to even look for a dry spot on a wall which is covered with oil. Who may have expressed that message to Mamie Till, who refused to be silent about her son’s horrific death, caused by white supremacist racists? How does one who is at the bottom of the well professionally or personally get connected to the seeds of hope which God planted within them?
If you have been at the bottom of a well, you know what it feels like, and if you become still, you may be able to recall the moment you realized that those stubborn seeds of hope, cut off from light and life, were pushing you to look up. You remember their power as well as you remember their refusal to let the darkness stop their growth.
Perhaps that is the message we need to internalize, and then to share with others. The darkness, no matter how intense, cannot extinguish the light which is within our seeds of hope. Bad times are not “the boss of us.” No, the boss of us …and the supervisor of survival at the bottom of the well …is the God of us all, who loves and cherishes us, no matter what.
Amen and amen.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith –Writer, author, musician, pastor, preacher and social justice advocate. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives,” which won the 2009 National Best Books Award. Follow Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith on Twitter:www.twitter.com/cassad