Race for Last

In One Drop of Blood,writer Scott L. Malcomson examines the destructive legacy of racial designations

Among the many gruesome battles fought during the Civil War, the Battle of the Crater, waged near Petersburg, Virginia, during the summer of 1864, might have best captured the futility of racial separatism. During a stalemate in the fighting, black, white, and Indian Union soldiers tunneled for 500 feet underground into "No Man's Land," a 150-yard stretch of contested ground between Confederate and Union trenches. The men packed the far end with four tons of dynamite and detonated the fuse, opening a crater 170 feet long, 60 wide, and 30 deep. Rather than trapping the Confederates, the crater became a shooting gallery. As journalist Scott L. Malcomson imagines the scene in his exhaustively researched new book, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): "The [Union troops] hesitated, then poured into the burning hole. It was a hot morning, the Southern guns blazed away. Soon no sounds came from the crater. It was filling with dead and dying white men and Indians. 'Blood,' an officer recalled, 'was streaming down the sides of the crater to the bottom, where it gathered in pools for a time before being absorbed by the hard red clay.'"

Tragically, even though Indian, black, and white men died together in this "sink of blood," the conflicts between these three races would continue to perpetuate an unimaginable amount of future violence. Starting from a recognition of this painful history, One Drop of Blood explores how the American construct of race developed, and attempts to explain why it evolved into such a divisive force. Malcomson, who has reported for the New Yorker and the New York Times, draws from present-day interviews, extensive troves of documents, and untapped archives in half a dozen states. In spite of the vast amount of information he harvests, Malcomson wields his erudition lithely, with a keen eye for the paradoxes of American life. In the end, he discovers what other cultural historians have noted before him: that a sense of whiteness was essential to our nation's broader experience with race.

In the past decade, whiteness studies have surged among universities nationwide, largely as an answer to the rise of multiculturalism, with whiteness coming to be seen as a legitimate academic area like Asian-American studies or Chicano studies. Malcomson takes umbrage with whiteness, however, and his book strenuously deconstructs this notion, arguing that if we are to move forward as a multicultural society we ought to abolish it. The authority of his argument derives from his analysis of the "one-drop rule," an egregious principle that held that any amount of "black blood" made a person black. "At first glance," he writes, "this might seem to fix racial matters in a final shape and settle the problem of determining who's who. Yet it did just the opposite....Seeking to pin down the essence of race, the one-drop rule actually made that essence unknowable, indeed invisible....It was simply not possible to know whether you had black blood--to know whether you were a white person or an imitation. There was no way to be sure." As a result, the "one-drop rule made whiteness imaginary, pushed one's whiteness back into an indefinitely receding past of unknown ancestors."

At its core, whiteness was an absence of color, the negation of blackness or Indianness. As they grew into the posture of God-given superiority, the colonialists and antebellum Southern plantation owners worked to legalize the ritual of racial separation. Malcomson is a skilled reader of history, uncovering the revelatory implications from the depths of musty documents. He shows how John Locke, whose belief in the right to property gave birth to the American idea of liberty, actually created the loophole that engendered a society riven by race. As Malcomson reminds us, Locke was a believer in the commerce of slavery, a shareholder in English slave-trading companies, and ultimately an architect of American slavery. Property was his personal passion. And by property, Locke meant body and soul as well as land. This automatically disenfranchised slaves: As the property of others, they were denied their inherent liberty.

By 1700 this spurious concept of innate white superiority was flourishing. Even Benjamin Franklin, often considered the most enlightened and independent of the founding fathers, endorsed white separatism, saying, "Perhaps I am partial to the [white] complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind." As the colonies emerged victorious in their war for independence and grappled with the framework of nationhood, whiteness came to define the parameters of Americanness. Malcomson argues, "The only aspect of the United States with national resonance and some rootedness in a collective, national past...was the racial thinking that divided people into white, Indian, and black, or into white and into nonwhite." America, Malcomson argues in his zealous, windy way, was destined to become a segregated society. "[To] the extent that Americans wanted a national identity as a people...that identity almost had to be racial...[it] was already clear by the 1750s, if not earlier, 'American' identity would be a white identity."

 

Malcomson's subject is more than just whiteness. One Drop of Blood unfolds in four parts, with one devoted to Indians, blacks, and whites, followed, improbably, by a shorter memoir. Shifting between the stories of the races--from the War of 1812 to the Harlem Renaissance, from the era of Manifest Destiny to the vicious vigilantism of the Jim Crow South--Malcomson occasionally buries us in details and ephemera. As a result, this 584-page book feels less like a historical exegesis than a profound meditation, complicated rather than enhanced by its structure. If the history of race and whiteness are inseparable, why tell them as separate stories?

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