Race for Last

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?

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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