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
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
Fresh, fascinating, comprehensive, insightful, self-indulgent,
and exhausting, Scott Malcomsons One Drop of Blood presents
whiteness from European prehistory to the American present. Given historians
mania for depth, we arent 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 nations 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
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 Malcomsons 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 books 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
Malcomsons own personal history. This last part looks at California
since the mid-nineteenth century and the history Oakland (Malcomsons
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 Malcomsons 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 sections 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
Malcomsons genealogy. True, this sections 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
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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