Skin Deep


In his densely written and witty One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race, Scott Malcomson—an equal-opportunity finger-pointer—focuses on the shifting definitions of blackness, whiteness, and Indianness in America. Malcomson asserts that these identities, while often facilitating the political and cultural ambitions of racial groups, have also stimulated racial violence and exploitation. At the core of his book is a depiction of how whiteness became synonymous with Americanness:

To the extent that Americans wanted a national identity as a people, rather than as human beings who happened to be in America, that identity almost had to be racial; given that white power, and the racial differences within which it developed and which it greatly extended, was already clear by the 1750s, if not earlier, “American” identity would be a white identity.

Malcomson’s attention to history’s profound racial ironies is the book’s strongest aspect. Prior to the Civil War, the federal government strongly supported banishing the Cherokee peoples to the West, the theory being that “Indianness” was OK, as long as it wasn’t in their neighborhood. In fact, many of the Cherokee had been so thoroughly “Americanized” that some actually owned slaves. Despite their general sympathy for the conditions of blacks, Malcomson contends that the Cherokee sought to distinguish themselves as nonblack, “honorary” whites. Blackness became a marker from which other groups could measure their own social worth as well, since, so the logic went, there was nothing more socially bankrupt than being a “nigga.”

More than a century later, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 allowed “reservation” economies to be buoyed via legalized gambling activities. As a result, the Mohegans built the Mohegan Sun, with its requisite native fetishes, now one of the most popular gambling casinos in the Northeast. Ironically, Malcomson points out, the Mohegans enlisted the services of South African casino developer Sol Kerzner to develop the Mohegan Sun. Kerzner was responsible for the construction of the infamous Sun City, a global symbol for apartheid.

Even with a reasonably defined “red” and later “black” other, whites during the late 18th and 19th century also struggled to define what exactly whiteness meant in this new America. Malcomson suggests, as has Eric Lott in his book Love and Theft, that the development of the minstrel stage was as much about whites attempting to imagine themselves as it was about the caricature and distortion of black life.

If images of blackness were useful for Indians and whites to create and re-create themselves, they were also useful for some blacks in the same way. The New Negro Movement occurred concurrently with the dramatic migration of blacks from the Deep South to Northern and Midwestern cities. Malcomson suggests that this “newness” represented a divorce from the negative connotations of blackness, which “Negro” elites had accepted as being detrimental to the race.

Even as New Negro thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke castigated black folk for their “backwardness,” those folks ingeniously created a context in which blackness would help sustain them. Thus the supposedly backward blues culture or jazz music legitimately created cathartic spaces where blacks could sustain their humanity. Their material conditions didn’t necessarily improve, although music helped them “make a way out of no way,” and believe there was some purpose in the lives they lived, even if that purpose was solely to hear Duke Ellington on a Saturday night.

In the year 2000 white youth and more than a few middle-class black youth are willing to wear blackness, to authenticate their “realness” within a culture where racial identity is still largely manufactured. For white kids, mimicking blackness places them in opposition to what they see as traditional white middle-class values. Meanwhile, black kids far removed from the ‘hood use blackness to connect to the black community. Transnational corporations are more than willing to ship the next 2 million copies of JayZ or Lil’ Kim to suburban record stores in order to fuel those appetites.

At the same time, more than a few ghetto-fab black entrepreneurs have been all too willing to sell blackness on the open market to the highest bidder. In an attempt to embrace an amorphous notion of Americanness, they are willing to distort, produce, and distribute blackness in efforts to acquire the financial and social capital to distance themselves from the inequities of black social reality.

This betrayal of self is the real tragedy that Malcomson describes in One Drop of Blood. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, be it the Republican National Convention or the Source Music Awards, we still live within a racial hierarchy, and it is all too easy to choose the relative rewards of more comfortable positions within that system than to challenge the hierarchy itself. One Drop of Blood is a welcome addition to a new body of work on race and whiteness, including David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, W.T. Lhamon Jr.’s Raising Cain, and Gayle Wald’s Crossing the Line.