18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2001
This book is in deep, deep need of a ruthless editor. There's no doubt that Malcomson's prose is well crafted, no doubt that he makes good, often innovative, insights into the issues of race and racial identity in America. Yet I found myself saying "Oh, get ON with it" several times in each section. Malcolmson covers big areas of race chronologically, each area separately, so that this reads like three or four separate books; some of the areas overlap so much that I wondered if there were massive printing errors and I was reading the same section in two places. In terms of pacing and placement, I think the last section in the book should have been the first. Malcolmson's account of his own upbringing and experience of race would have made a better setup than conclusion.
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2001
Malcomson emphasizes the idea that the new USA needed a racial identity - "to the extent that Americans wanted a national identity as a people, rather than human beings that happened to be in America, that identity almost had to be racial.... `American' identity would be a white identity."
While this is true in large part, it largely ignores the huge impact of the colonies' religious identity (which had driven the founding of several colonies) by curtly stating the unattributed fact that "in 1790 only about one in ten white American was a member of a formal church." Whatever relationship actual membership in a "formal church" may have to do with American's personal beliefs, there is ample evidence that a common core of publicly-expressed religious beliefs formed the basis of the "American" character in 1790.
Malcomson likewise downplays the cohesive unity brought about by the struggle against Britain, joint membership in a new country, and the adherence to the ideals of the Declaration. This emphasis on the preeminent racial nature of "American" identity is somewhat at odds with his other theme that "being white meant, above all, not being black."
While the book is subtitled "The American Misadventures of Race," the book could benefit from some discussion about the role of race in other civilizations and countries. What, in other countries, is similar to, or different from, the US experience?
While Malcomson does a good job in analyzing popular culture's take on race in many cases, this could improve. There's no mention of the effect of Defoe's 1719 _Robinson Crusoe_ - the first English novel, and full of the racial assumptions of the time (during 28 years on the island pondering why God abandoned him, Crusoe never considers it could be because of his involvement in the slave trade; nor does Crusoe give second thought to his assumption that Friday will be his servant after leaving the island). D.W. Griffith's 1915 "Birth of a Nation" is barely mentioned.
Malcomson's attitude toward religion is inconsistent. At one point, he tries to argue that religion did not support slavery, writing that pro-slavery advocates "desperately ransacked the Bible to find comfort for slaveholders ... [with] harried thumbings of the Bible." Yet it isn't too hard to find the Bible's tacit approval of slavery, its general comments on separation of peoples, and even direct commands such as "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters." Nor does Malcomson mention the approval that many churches gave to slavery, and the typical segregation practiced by churches, which certainly lent legitimacy to feelings of white superiority. Billy Graham astonished some church members when he refused to allow segregated seating in his crusades after 1954: in some areas, formalized church segregation continued through the 1960's.
Yet, ignoring the church's segregation through the 1960's, Malcomson suddenly decides the church is segregated in the 1970's. He writes, "When, as a teenager, I left Oakland, I also left the church.... I could not choose to be in a white church. That would be like choosing a white school (or a white town).... [In the black church,] the music is undeniably better, there's more to eat at socials, and grief is not treated as a ... character flaw. Where the white church is a lake, the black church is an ocean."
First, where is the discussion about _why_ some churches are "white" ?? There are many reasons besides intended segregation that a church may wind up to be predominately white. Second, what right does Malcomson have to generalize from his own experience to the idea that the "black" church is everywhere superior to the "white" church?
Why does Malcomson think that "when I was a teenager" is a date every reader should recognize? (By reading other passages, Malcomson was apparently a teenager in the 1970's.) In another passage, Malcomson strangely dates an event by the year when "Grandma was closing in on death."
Malcomson frequently picks on the negative: he spends seven pages describing the 1849 California constitutional convention debates on whether to admit free blacks to California, yet he does not give the end vote and its margin, nor any relevant language of the California constitution.
The book, published in 2000, essentially ends its narration of American racial history in the mid 1970's, with the observation that whites then tried to move away from their racial past, as other races moved toward theirs.
One major current issue on race in America is "reverse discrimination." Malcomson doesn't even mention cases such as Baake. Is it right for blacks to receive benefits based on race? Malcomson's only comment, somewhat on point, is that "races in America have functioned so much as families do, and once you are in the family you receive your part of the inheritance, and the American past becomes your past."
Earlier Malcomson discusses the attempt of abolitionists in the 1840's to keep blacks from forming black groups or holding black conventions, on the principle of equality. "The beyond-race principle lacked a historical element. Perhaps that is in the nature of a principle. But in the case of race in America, it could have strange consequences, because race, being itself historical, resists ahistorical explanation."
Where are the author's thoughts on the solution to our racial problems? How long must the correction of our "family" problem continue? One would hope that someone who had done so much research would have some thoughts, but they're not presented.
This is a worthwhile book to read, because it will make you think. Yet it has a lot of gaps in it, is overly long in many sections, and its stream-of-consciousness organization (as Salon states) is "unorthodox if not downright infuriating."
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2006
I have had a hard time getting into this book. Malcomson wades into detail, droning on and on. My own lack of discipline confronted me, but interest in the subject kept me turning the pages and I am very glad I did. As other reviewers point out, this isn't a perfect book, but for my money he took on a subject that we sorely need in this country if we are ever to move forward to see ourselves as one entity, human beings. I thank him for that. I think this would be a great book, along with Takaki from UCB's book "A Different Mirror," to be on the shelves of history classes through out our country, even in its imperfections. Racism is an artificial classification. Skin is decided in the gens, like eye color, etc. To base anything on it is ridiculous. But man's inhumanity to man is a reality, using whatever means necessary to carry out power. Just look around the world and watch it carried out today in every continent. This book is a step in enlightening a part of American history that was left out of my history books as a kid. I hope others will tackle this subject so that we can accept that we have always been multicultural, multireligious, and various colored peoples from the beginning. We haven't always told the truth of our inheritance as a nation. I applaud anyone who tackles this subject and highly recommend reading this book. I might also add that with DNA testing available now, we might find we are more connected than we have all dared to admit in the past.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2011
Few books on race can match this one, for it takes the "sting" out of a problematic national obsession. The author simply tells the truth as he sees it and as history has recorded it: nothing more nothing less. And boy does he do it with a poetic flair.
His writing reflects a rare sensitivity to the soul of America not often seen in print. Only a true lover of America could weave a complex, disturbingly provocative tale about this nation in the way this author has done and not injure any particular group's feelings. He makes you want to forgive us of all our national sins. And as the book elaborates, there are enough sins to go around -- most of them centered upon the multi-generational white fetish with race. That is not to suggest that the book is primarily a psychological book, for it is not. Yet, most of the tension is felt in the subtext, in the things he unconsciously touches on but leaves out of the foreground of the text. He seems reluctant to get at what is really troubling the American subconscious mind?
One such example, of particular interest to me and my writing interests, is the connection between the American taboo of interracial sex, violence and racial identity. From the title of the book one would assume that he would jump immediately into those topics, but not so here. Each topic was acknowledged in its own right but the connection between them went unacknowledged except as themes running along in the subtext of the book. I was disappointed that since he came so close to exposing these as meta-themes about race he did not make their hidden connections explicit. I wanted him to get to (what I believe to be) the "real" root causes of this fascination and preoccupation with race - black-on-white sex -- but he only repeatedly hinted and insinuated at this indirectly in the subtext.
And in fact, in retrospect, his omission of them is one of the beauties of the book: It is in no way "preachy." This author has no axes to grind even though I would have been happier if he had had axes to grind. He is primarily a storyteller in love with his subject, America. He sees it as part of his duty to tell the truth about America's difficult racial history. He does not embellish it; or pretty it up, nor does he wallow in recriminations, finger-pointing or victimhood. He simply finds novel ways to make ugly historical truths as painless as possible, and succeeds at it again and again.
When he drops a bomb, like his revelations about Abe Lincoln being a racist, for instance (something any historian worth his salt already knows), you don't know it has been detonated until several pages later. When he has Lincoln suggesting to Indians in the midst's of the Civil War that white men are not warlike like the Indians are?
The author's theory about the evolution of whiteness is coherent, almost believable except for the gapping hole (mentioned above) left at its center. He argues, quite correctly in my view, that whiteness is an after the fact phantom organic development, a stealth tribal mask built after the fact to cover up the mayhem of imperialism. According to him, the white race was the name given to the "act of disremembering" all of that mayhem. That is why whiteness has no racial past. There is nothing else to see in the past but inchoate violence, confusion and contradictions. Whiteness thus can only exist in the present. The past, to the extent it exists at all must be constantly "doctored" to persevere meanings of whiteness in the present.
There is so much truth to this theory that one is almost ready to buy it, lock, stock and barrel, except that it explains away more than it explains. I hope the author realized that in shaping the theory of whiteness in this way, he leaves as the perfect metaphor for whiteness the Ku Klux Klan: A group of respectable whites riding around on horses covered in sheets in the middle of the night engaging in mayhem against those they have defined as inferior to themselves. They engage in atrocities always involving sexual violence, pray to their Christian God, and then seamlessly melt back into normal society. Writ large that is what the author has told us that whiteness is. And who am I to disagree with him on this score.
However, the real question at the center of the meaning of whiteness is not why it developed as a covert racial entity, but why it has been surrounded by all the violence, sex, religion, hatred and covertness in the first place? History is replete with other conquering tribes that engaged in imperialism without all of these?
The answer of course must lie deeper, in the Freudian analysis of the insecurities driving the mostly male white tribe then and still driving it now. At the root of white narcissism (and its faux superiority), is in fact a deep inferiority complex, one that has a definite unacknowledged sexual dependency component to it. It goes almost without saying that it is an elementary exercise in Freudian analysis to prove that the white man's "superiority complex" is little more than an "inferiority complex" in disguise. Only inferior people actually have a need to prove and demonstrate their superiority. Thus, white males not only do not believe that they are superior, they fear deep within their souls that they are in fact quite inferior beings. And at a very basic level they also feel sexually inadequate. The best proof of this is that even though they control the world (even if they do so in an arbitrary and capricious manner and mostly under psychological and military duress) they still depend on others to define who they are. White identity can only be centered, its social order and the hierarchy through which it is expressed legitimized, through other non-white peoples. Whiteness is clearly a case of Narcissus looking into the mirror on the wall and seeing a non-white face that tells him who he is. Without the black mirror's edict, whiteness does not exist. Put differently, whiteness cannot exist in a social vacuum. It cannot be self-legitimized any more than it can be self-defined.
Thus, a somewhat speculative explanation that fills the hole the author leaves in his analysis is this one: Two things were missing on the American frontier, labor and female sexual partners (90% of the frontier population were men). Both deficiencies served as the basis for the primary inner fears that animated male frontier life (and eventually became the source of his feelings of inferiority). Slaves obviously served as one source for killing two birds with one stone; that is to say, for servicing both needs. Eventually enough white women did come on the scene to take over the sexual duties and responsibilities. However, it took the white man sometime to wean himself off of black slave sex.
The point however, is not the sex per se, but that altogether, this twin dependency simply pointed more clearly to the fact that the white man was needy and could not survive without the labor of blacks or without the sex of women, and more often than admitted, the sex of black women. Here is where the violence, religion and sex nexus come together to fill in the hole and to complete the picture. It was the self-hatred generated by this twin dependency that animated white male insecurities, inferiority and thus promoted his violence. For obvious reasons, blacks, the pre-defined inferiors, received the brunt of white male self-hatred in the form of indiscriminant violence. Religion of course was used as it is always used, to clean up the moral mess after the fact. That is, it was used as a way of atoning for both the violence and the illicit sex.
Ultimately, this author shows that race, racism, violence, religion, and sex are about defining a nation and a culture, and therefore are all an integral part of the American DNA and thus are things that we can either shrink or hide from, or distort with dishonest after the fact narratives. As disturbing as this book's content is, the author succeeds in proving that telling the truth about our history is the best medicine and will in the end set us free and at the same time make us stronger. Ten stars.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2006
Wonderfully dense volume of crosscultural history. The book is divided into three sections, Native American, African American, & European American. His great use of contemporary and historical references made this a meaty thought provoking read. This book has directed me to several classic authors as well as helped me to appreciate the horror and complexity of the issues of racism in America. If you could not put down the People's history... you will move through this book very quickly.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2002
Malcomson provides a wealth of historical, detailed proof of the European, Renaissance-period origins of "race." Additionally, from a uniquely American perspective, he shows how destructive this concept has been for both "white" people and "non-white" peoples, alike. This book is necessarily somewhat dry, because the concept of race lies so deep within our sub-conscious thinking that cursory analyses and descriptions would come off as either mythological or hysterical -- and therefore would convince no one of their truth.
32 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2000
Malcomson's is a magnificent achievement. He brings profundity, originality and a rare sympathy to a large and all-important subject - race. It is history at its best, limpid, engrossing, rewarding and unusual. But Malcomson's real achievement is in taking One Drop of Blood beyond history and into the realm of our daily lives. His story matters to anyone who thinks about the modern world. Never preachy, often diverting, it is stylish written and littered with beautifully turned passages and episodes. And throughout is Malcomson's own wonderfully distinctive voice, calm and passionate; clear and lyrical; at times a little abashed, at other times full-throated; and always, always intensely empathetic and compassionate.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2009
The book is well-researched with a lot of information and detail, however, Malcomson does tend to drag on and repeat himself quite a bit. Good information but in need of an editor...
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2011
I've tried 2x to finish this and I just cannot bring myself to do it. I might try a 3rd time since it's been 10 years.
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2011
Yay, another white-bashing book! Another sterling example of what's wrong with the White Guilt crowd. It was purchased as 'required reading' for a college class that was being taught by a psycho instructor who insisted that white people were responsible for every evil imaginable....never mind she was whiter than rice herself. This book is only a couple of steps away from insisting that whites need to be quarantined away from the rest of humanity....