Nell Irvin Painter


Review by Nell Irvin Painter. Reproduced with permission from Journal of Southern History 68:3, August 2002, pp. 669-671.

One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race.
By Scott L. Malcomson.
(New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, c. 2000. Pp. viii, 584. Paper $15.00, ISBN 0-374-52794-6; cloth, $30.00, ISBN 0-374-24-79-5.)

Reviewed by Nell Irvin Painter
Princeton University

Fresh, fascinating, comprehensive, insightful, self-indulgent, and exhausting, Scott Malcomson’s One Drop of Blood presents whiteness from European prehistory to the American present. Given historians’ mania for depth, we aren’t likely to write such books, at least not any more. This is all the more reason for historians to become familiar with what Malcomson has to say, because with his journalistic breadth of vision, he presents overarching truths historians usually lose sight of beneath conditional statements and respect for historiographical tradition.

Malcomson reads historical materials naively (I mean this in a good sense), which allows him perceive the hysteria and nonsense of canonical statements about race from, say, Abraham Lincoln. Malcomson quotes Lincoln telling Indian visitors during the Civil War that “we are not, as a race, so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethre.” (p. 94). Malcomson also possesses the rare ability to read white texts through nonwhite eyes, which means he interrogates silences in the historical record as well as explicit statements. His seeing anew reveals the pathology of American racial history. Although his treatment of the Old South runs off into fancy, and he sometimes presents millions of white Americans as though they were one, Malcomson does an excellent job of puncturing the pretensions in the truisms (uttered and silent) of white supremacy.

One main point appears repeatedly: white Americans’ yearning to forget our nation’s racial past, to start anew, to preserve their innocence. No invention of the post-affirmative-action era, this wish for newness, Malcomson says, goes back to the American Revolution. At every point, and even in the slaveholding South, whites have tried to exempt themselves from American racial history by refusing to shoulder responsibility for the society they created and led. Malcomson presents the attempts of Thomas Jefferson and a host of older and more recent commentators to slough off the blame for slavery onto other people (the British, New Englanders) in an effort to remove black people from the United States altogether. Indians and African Americans, by contrast he says, hold on to the past, for the past explains their present situation. The fact of having written so fat a book with so much Indian and African-American history in it ranges Malcomson toward the nonwhite side. He wants us all to face our past, though as a tragedy, not as the scene of a crime (whatever that means).

One Drop of Blood has a basic motif: Oklahoma, to which Malcomson returns periodically. The books begins with the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 as prologue to its first section, on Indians, then moves to Malcomson’s interview with a present-day Cherokee activist. Like the good journalist he is, Malcomson from time to time reports his visits with various Oklahomans, not just the Cherokee tribal official, but also with two women living in an all-black town; with white-supremacists (one of whom was condemned with Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing, another of whom is black [!]); and with members of his own extended family. These face-to-face encounters enliven the presentation and alter the rhythm of historical presentation.

In a very general sense, the book’s organization is racial: The first of its four sections deals with Indians, the second, with African Americans, the third with white Americans, the last with Malcomson’s own personal history. This last part looks at California since the mid-nineteenth century and the history Oakland (Malcomson’s and my own hometown), concentrating on the 1970s, when he was an adolescent. But my characterization oversimplifies a complex, comprehensive treatment of a multitude of themes. It also obscures one of Malcomson’s main insights: the mutability over time and place of racial identification.

Each section includes more than simply a chronicle of white-nonwhite interaction. This means the first section’s coverage of Indian history includes Cherokee history over two centuries (farming in Georgia, the Trail of Tears, slaveholding, the Civil War) as well as the fascinating history of the now multiracial Connecticut Pequots and their late twentieth-century attempts to procure tribal recognition for the purpose of erecting casino gambling in New England. The second section deals with themes of blackness in Elizabethan England and the United States. It doubles back over some of the same chronology as the first section, but with black people and their history as its focus. Both the first and second sections discuss politics, and some of the same figures (e.g., Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson) reappear. The third section, on white people, begins with the creation of modern whiteness in tandem with the creation of modern blackness in the era of the Atlantic slave trade. It discusses “white separatism” in states barring the entry of blacks before the Civil War and white flight from cities into which black people had migrated in the twentieth century.

Reviews of One Drop of Blood have generally expressed frustration with the last section, which does carry on at length about Malcomson’s genealogy. True, this section’s strengths and weaknesses are those of autobiography in general. Malcomson presents California and Oakland as microcosms of American history, which I do not find convincing: no one locale adequately embodies so huge and varied a nation as the United States.

Malcomson scatters insight throughout this long book, and thus no one part encapsulates the wisdom of the whole. I recommend it to American historians in the sprit I recommend good fiction: for the pleasure of the read and for the questions it gives historians to take into the archives.

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