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One Drop of Blood

The American Misadventure of Race

Scott Malcomson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

One Drop of Blood Download image

ISBN10: 0374527946
ISBN13: 9780374527945

Trade Paperback

544 Pages



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A Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Why has a nation founded upon precepts of freedom and universal humanity continually produced, through its preoccupation with race, a divided and constrained populace? Malcomson's search for an answer took him to communities across the country and deep into our past. From Virginia colonists "going native" onward, Malcomson argues, Americans, in their mania for self-invention, pioneered an idea of race that gave it unprecedented moral and social importance. A parade of idealists, pragmatists, and opportunists—from Ben Franklin to Tecumseh, Washington Irving to Bobby Seale—defined, "Indian," "black," and "white" in relation to one another and in service to the aspirations and anxieties of each era.

These definitions, however, have never been gladly adopted by the people they were meant to describe. To escape the limits of race, Americans have continually attempted to escape from other races or to nullify race by confining, eliminating, or absorbing one another. From Puritan enslavement of Indians to the separatism we enact daily in our schools and neighborhoods, Americans have perpetually engaged with and fled from other Americans along racial lines. By not only recounting our nation's most distinctive and enduring drama but helping us to own it—even to embrace it—this redemptive book offers a way to move forward.


Praise for One Drop of Blood

"The best single history of race in America in many years, the one to read if you only have time for one book on the subject: It gets closer than the others to telling the whole story . . . As an outsider, Malcomson manages to breathe life into the study of race, mainly by connecting together just about all the important insights of previous specialists . . . He writes with the cool detachment of great social novelists: understanding the depth and universality of human depravity, he exposes it in a judicious, rather than judgmental, way. This seems the only road to trustworthy compassion."—David L. Chappell, University of Arkansas, Newsday

"Malcomson . . . succeeds brilliantly . . . The author blends historical analysis with literary criticism; explores the history of his extended family and his childhood; interviews black, white and Native American separatists; and speculates about the psychological dimensions of perceived racial differences. Malcomson has read broadly in the secondary historical literature, and he cites many key primary texts that span the centuries. The result is a richly provocative examination of the idea of race and the 'varied thoughts' that have sustained it."—Jacqueline Jones, The Washington Post

"Explosive and exhilarating . . . Carried through with an ardor and interpretive brilliance that rivals James Baldwin . . . Malcomson has set a new standard of open, honest dialogue on race in America."—Orlando Patterson, The New York Times Book Review

"With both elegance and sophistication, [Malcomson] focuses on what he calls 'America's tripod of race'—Native Americans, white Americans, and African Americans—and traces the collective historical experience of each group from the colonization of America to the present. Malcomson examines how each group's self-definition of racial identity shaped, and was shaped by, other groups' definitions of themselves as each sought to create a racially separate utopia. He skillfully weaves together historical narratives and contemporary interviews, juxtaposing the diverse voices of a Cherokee nationalist, the daughter of a black Oklahoma homesteader, and a Christian Identity movement minister, for example, to emphasize the continuing influence of race upon Americans today. . . Malcomson should be commended for his provocative meditations on one of the central themes in our nation's tortured history, a theme that continues to shape our daily lives in the new millennium."—Patrick J. Huber, University of Missouri-Rolla, The North Carolina Historical Review

"Scott L. Malcomson is a highly respected writer with a formidable reputation for thorough research and original analysis . . . In this new, ambitious study, Malcomson turns his eye—and an eye that is both scholarly and pertinently autobiographical (including an excellent discussion of how the Oakland of his childhood has changed)—on the history of race in the United States . . . Malcomson is less concerned with scholarly debates than unearthing relevant life stories and forgotten histories, and this quality makes his book intensely readable . . . This interest in the individual experience makes for a nuanced and often subtle book. The author also makes forays into the historical origins of race, invoking arguments in ancient Egypt and biblical accounts; and he explores the manifestations of race and love in William Shakespeare's England . . . Malcomson is an accomplished writer, and this book is an engagingly written and knowledgeable discourse on the most important of American subjects. He has done a service in integrating the parallel though commonly intertwined histories of different groups—American Indians, African Americans, and whites—in the United States, unlike accounts that view American history as the descent from a period of glorious individualism. Groups and races constitute American history. Malcomson explains why this occurred and why failure to understand it will result in partial and distorted historical analysis."—Desmond King, Oxford University, American Historical Review

"Fresh, fascinating, comprehensive, insightful . . . One Drop of Blood presents whiteness from European prehistory to the American present . . . Malcomson 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 . . . [He] does an excellent job of puncturing the pretensions in the truisms (uttered and silent) of white supremacy."—Nell Irvin Painter, The Journal of Southern History

"Malcomson tracks with a Melvillean intensity the 'unbidden yet unstoppable' evolution of racial categorization in the United States. Close readings of history tease out the manifold ironies and contradictions of the subject."—
dn0 The New Yorker

"Full of swift insights . . . The chapters speed by . . . like a crash course given by a brilliant teacher."—Daniel Blue, San Francisco Chronicle

"This is cultural history written as a nation's collective memoir. Malcomson's ambitious narrative, spanning two centuries of an idea, is bound to become a cornerstone of the new American historiography."—Talk

"This book should be read with deliberation, for it invites serious reflection of a kind that for the fair-minded, rational person can only be liberating."—John C. Walter, The Seattle Times

"Malcomson's accounts of how whites' myths of racial belonging were woven—out of encounters with Indians in forests primeval, with blacks on African coasts and Virginia riverbanks and with Mexicans in the often-fatuous deliberations of the California Constitutional Convention of 1849—are moral without moralizing, intimate without self-pity or self-importance . . . The result is a book almost biblical . . . with commanding flights of moral imagination and poetry."—Jim Sleeper, Los Angeles Times

"Malcomson takes the lightning rod of race and looks at the challenges it presents to U.S. ideals of freedom and equality for all. He explores the historic and current race perceptions of black, Indian, and white communities, examining the social construction and reconstruction that demonstrates the fluidity of the supposed concreteness of race. Malcomson is strongest, if not most compassionate, in portraying whiteness as a New World phenomenon that allowed the shedding of former European classes of indentured servants, ex-convicts, religious zealots, and landless gentry. Whites have on occasion been known to 'go native' and, in recent years, have made increasingly more claims to Indian blood. The Indians, for their part, historically have been differentiated as 'civilized,' nations with customs and practices similar to whites, versus 'uncivilized.' Yet, the net effect is to not differentiate between such statuses. Blacks, who have, at points, been enslaved by whites, Indians, and even other blacks, provide the 'otherness' against which all races in the U.S. tend to be defined. The one-drop legal construct has held such sway in the U.S. that a straight-on examination of the complexity of race that it produces has been long overdue. Malcomson fills the void."—Vernon Ford, Booklist

"In this eloquent, sharp-eyed, and utterly fascinating book, Scott Malcomson tells a thousand and one tales of America's strange encounter with the idea of race, ranging from the Lost Colony of Roanoke to Mark Twain to the Oklahoma City bombing. His journey along the color line yields startling new insights into our past and our present."—Henry Wiencek, author of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White

"One Drop of Blood is a dazzling meditation on the creation and maintenance of American attitudes about race. Malcomson's thoroughly intelligent and elegant presentation deftly employs history, literary criticism, and memoir to reveal the tragedy and beauty that have helped shape the contours of America's tortured racial landscape. An insightful interrogation of the past, with a hopeful look toward the future. One Drop of Blood is a tour de force."—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

Scott Malcomson

Scott Malcomson's previous books are Tuturani: A Political Journey in the Pacific Islands and Borderlands: Nation and Empire. From 1984 to 1996 he worked at The Village Voice in a variety of jobs, including a seven-year stint as senior editor at the VLS.