A bold and original retelling of the story of race in America
Why has a nation founded upon precepts of freedom and universal humanity continually produced, through its preoccupation with race, a divided and constrained populace? This question is the starting point for Scott Malcomson's riveting and deeply researched account, which amplifies history with memoir and reportage.
From the beginning, Malcomson shows, a nation obsessed with invention began to create a new idea of race, investing it with unprecedented moral and social meaning. A succession of visionaries and opportunists, self-promoters and would-be reformers carried on the process, helping to define "black," "white," and "Indian" in opposition to one another, and in service to the aspirations and anxieties of each era. But the people who had to live within those definitions found them constraining. They sought to escape the limits of race imposed by escaping from other races or by controlling, confining, eliminating, or absorbing them, in a sad, absurd parade of events. Such efforts have never truly succeeded, yet their legacy haunts us, as we unhappily re-enact the drama of separatism in our schools, workplaces, and communities. By not only recounting the shared American tragicomedy of race but helping us to own, even to embrace it, this important book offers us a way at last to move beyond it.
In a breathtaking and unusual treatment of the artifice and hypocrisy that has surrounded racial differences in America from its earliest settlement to the present, this massive work offers stunning insights with a subtle hand. The first three parts of the book deal with "indianness," "blackness" and "whiteness" respectively, followed by a fourth, which aims to reconcile the previous sections. The opening exploration of the opportunistic ways that philosophers, politicians and white society have defined Indian identity and land rights is haunting and powerfulDas is the chapter on "the Indian as slaveholder," which reveals the life of black slaves on a Cherokee reservation and their march on the Trail of Tears beside their "masters." But the rest of the book does not deliver upon the promise of the first 100 pages. Although the focuses on America, Malcomson journeys back into the medieval and the ancient world to find the defining moment when skin color was associated with good, evil and slavery. At times, this wide-ranging approach yields surprising insights (for example, Malcomson offers a thoughtful discussion of Shakespeare's outlook on blackness). However, he also includes long-winded digressions that are not securely anchored in his larger argument. Malcomson (Empire's Edge: Travels in South-Eastern Europe, Turkey and Central Asia) reveals the creation of "race" as a tool to obtain power, suppress the newly created powerless and justify immoral claims to land and property. Although not fully realized, his ambitious study of race and American identity is to be commended for dragging our racial conundrums further into the light of day.