Race for Last

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

Among the book's sections, the first is unquestionably its best. Malcomson deftly depicts how the government of the United States manipulated the concept of race to dispossess Indians and rob them of their land. Drawing from the journals of obscure French colonialists as well as presidents Jefferson, Washington, and Jackson, he paints a picture of white leaders willfully obfuscating the ideals of the nation's founding documents. America imagined a collective race, one in which, as Jefferson wrote in 1813, "[the Indians] would have mixed their blood with ours, and been amalgamated with us within no distant period of time."

But by that point, Indians had learned that whites' definition of amalgamation would lead to extinction rather than communion. With their numbers vastly diminished by sickness and brutal defeats, Indian tribes confronted a staggering dilemma. Their efforts to assimilate and adapt failed, so they reluctantly migrated West to delay the long, slow death spelled out by the U.S. government. In the end, badgered by Congress, law enforcement, and internal divisions, they were pushed onto the reservations. In perhaps the most infamous disenfranchisement, many thousands banished from lands in the Southeast perished on the infamous Trail of Tears. President Jackson embraced this move as if it were the destiny of Indians and Americans alike. "It is as if leaving home were the primordial act of the American," Malcomson writes, "a crystalline act both betraying the past and honoring the impulse that created the only past Americans had." Yet there is a crucial distinction: "White Americans, specifically, were a tribe condemned to wander; no, free to wander....In this view, whites were like their image of Indians, only better, because whites have no attachments at all, just the elusive goal of self-made glory."

Blacks also tried to adapt to the prominence of whiteness as best they could, building their own communities and preserving their own culture. Many prominent black and white Americans--from Booker T. Washington to Abraham Lincoln--applauded this separatist approach. Lincoln thought the best solution was to ship blacks out of America once they were manumitted. He even appointed an ambassador to explore the prospect of establishing a black American state in Panama, one modeled after Liberia. And when the president brought a delegation of five black men to Washington during the war, he told them: "You and we are different races....I think your race suffers very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence."

Thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., Malcomson notes, pursued a gentler course of civil rights. By contrast, some black groups responded to this message of segregation by asserting a new Afrocentric ideal. In 1787 an outspoken freed man named Prince Hall called for blacks to return to Africa. He died in 1807, his dream unrealized, but one hundred years later, Marcus Garvey issued another call to recognize the primacy of Africa. Garvey organized a system of black peerage, and planned a steamship line to transport black Americans to their ancestral homeland. The line failed. In the 1960s, Malcolm X would continue to voice this vision of Africa's importance.

Despite the legacy of separatism, institutionalized through a network of social and legal codes, barriers between the races began to break down in the 20th Century. Yet this has not benefited nonwhite races. White America has famously appropriated aspects of Indian and black culture in order to conceive of itself in new ways. In the 1920s, the white writer Carl Van Vechten wrote to H.L. Mencken, "Jazz, the blues, Negro spirituals all stimulate me enormously for the moment. Doubtless, I shall discard them too in time." And true to that prediction, when the Depression ravaged Harlem, whites quickly lost interest in the burgeoning arts movement there. Similarly, whites attempted to pass as Indian when Indian art was suddenly in vogue in the late 1980s, leading the Cherokee to track the artists down and de-authenticate them. As Malcomson points out, this occurrence had historical precedent: In the 19th Century, many whites falsely adopted Indian ancestry in order to secure land grants in Oklahoma. If we can learn a lesson from these snatches of history, it's that whiteness often functions as a powerful void, absorbing those identities that serve its purposes and casting out others.

In the book's final, earnest, and unnecessary section, Malcomson traces his own racial past, finding fissures and cracks where once only whiteness existed. The author recounts a conversation he had with a distant cousin in Switzerland County, Ohio. Eighty-two years old, but still sharp of mind, the cousin tells him about two lovers, one black, one white, who were tarred and feathered and sent down the river in the hot sun--a horrific reversal of Huck Finn and Jim's idyllic journey. "This world is a howling wilderness," Malcomson writes, a little sentimentally, and "[f]or all I know those lovers were my cousins, too, and I would like to recognize them. So at night I went, fearful, down to the river that runs through our little Babylon, our small intimate America." The searching story of that trip, One Drop of Blood teems with incident and eloquence, pulling us into the turbulent currents of American history.

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