Separate and Unequal

One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race

by Scott L. Malcomson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 584 pp., $30.00

1.

When he was eleven years old Scott Malcomson placed third in a citywide spelling bee in Oakland, California, home, as he reminds us, of both the Black Panthers and the Gray Panthers. At the awards ceremony after the spelling bee Marcus Foster, the black superintendent of Oakland’s schools, made what Mr. Malcomson remembers as a warm and moving speech. About a year later—in November 1973—Marcus Foster was murdered by the Symbionese Liberation Army, kidnappers of Patty Hearst and surely one of the more improbable of the various quasi-revolutionary groups operating in those fevered times.

Mr. Malcomson, who is white, tells us that in dreams he has relived the murder of Marcus Foster many times. He himself, at the time, was hanging out with Asian-American—or, as he calls them elsewhere, quasi-Chinese—friends, listening to black music. His father, Mr. Malcomson tells us,

was a Baptist minister who claims to this day that he learned all he knows about preaching the Word from black ministers. Dad worked an old church downtown—a white, liberal, middle-class church in a black and Hispanic neighborhood. Sometimes the family would go to hear him guest-preach in at black churches, where he seemed especially happy since the congregation actually listened to his sermons (as opposed to appreciating them). The family and I enjoyed these trips. We were able to sing in full voices with-out overwhelming the worshippers next to us in the pew.

Oakland, California, then and now, is a complex, racially intense community. Scott Malcomson’s quasi-Chinese friends taught him Asian martial arts, skills likely to be useful on the street. In Oakland racial and ethnic identity is rarely a neutral factor; I recall being required by two Oakland policemen in 1960 to show my car title before being allowed to proceed along the street to a bookshop. The officers, ahead of their time as ethnic profilers, probably suspected me of belonging to a despised, shiftless ethnic group, the Okies, plenty of whom could still be seen at the migrant-labor pickup points in Oakland in those days. The officers had me pegged pretty accurately, too: I grew up thirty miles from Oklahoma.

I mention all this because Scott Malcomson has planted himself as a writer at the confused, dangerous, traffic intersection of race and identity. On the first page of his first book, Tuturani, he asks these questions:

What does it mean to be white? Or black? How does a collection of people make themselves into a nation-state? Why should they want to? What are the distinctions between civilized (developed, modern) and uncivilized (developing, primitive)? What is paradise?

It was that final question—what is paradise?—that caused me to grab Tuturani, a book of political reportage about various of the Pacific islands and island groups: Palau, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, French Polynesia. I was about to go to French Polynesia myself and was curious about the politics. Of the estimated thirteen thousand books and articles about Tahiti a great many call it paradise; and yet it is a French colony in this anticolonial age and was the scene of some ugly riots in 1987. Was it paradise? Paul Gauguin lived as messily there as he had lived in France; he died, even more messily, in the Marquesas in 1903; and yet it was Gauguin, of all Western visitors, who seemed to look the hardest at this paradise. His art suggests that there is both weariness and wildness in it; how happy are those graceful, impressive young women, eating mangoes or holding flowers?

Scott Malcomson was a young reporter when he published Tuturani in 1990. He covered a lot of ground in the islands and then hurried off to do the same thing in Eastern Europe and Western Asia for a second book, Borderlands, where he was among such a herd of scholar-traveler-journalist-historians stampeding east after 1989 that his commentary was but faintly heard. In that period he seemed to be traveling a little too fast and also reading a little too rapidly, which is probably what caused him to mis-gender a particular heroine of mine, M.A. Czaplicka, author of Aboriginal Siberia, who was not male.

All Scott Malcomson’s traveling, his reading, his reportage, seems to have been preparing him for a return to America, and even to Oakland, to try to answer such questions as why he could only let himself go as a hymn-singer in black churches and why his dreams were haunted by the murder of Marcus Foster. One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race is an ambitious response to the questions he asks on the first page of his first book: What does it mean to be white? Or black? Or Indian? What, finally, is it about race? Why won’t the confusions, the injustices, the numberless tragedies that continue to flow from it—a black man dragged to death behind a pickup in my own state, police shootings, beatings, lynchings or suspected lynchings, not to mention genocide in various places—simply cease? Why has half a century of well-meant integrationist effort been neither a total failure nor a full success? Why does the fact that humankind is many-hued remain such a problem, even though we tell ourselves and are fulsomely told by Mr. Malcomson and a host of others that racial exclusivity only diminishes us all?

At the beginning of Tuturani Mr. Malcomson gives this explanation of the word he has chosen for his first title:

Tuturani is the word for white people in the Raga language of North Pentecost, Vanuatu…. Literally “stay stay day,” tuturani is usually defined by its figurative meaning: “A ship appeared in the evening, and in the morning it was still there.” Which suggests “the people who appeared one day and never went away.”

As in Vanuatu, so in America: a ship appeared one day and never went away, with the added complication that the white people who came in the ship very soon brought black people with them. Red people, of course, were already here, watching a disaster unfold. Soon some of the more prosperous and efficient red people—those who had escaped being enslaved themselves—made slaves of such black people as the whites could spare. Meanwhile more white people came and more black people were brought. This reckless immigration annoyed Benjamin Franklin, who was far from sanguine about the population increase and not entirely rational about it, either:

Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion? Which leads me to add one remark: That the number of purely white people in the world is proportionally very small. All Africa is black or tawney, Asia chiefly tawney, America (exclusive of the newcomers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased…. Why increase the sons of Africa by planting them in America, where we have an opportunity, by excluding blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind.

Even Abraham Lincoln, at least in his gloomy moods, tended to agree with Old Ben. The Civil War brought him plenty of gloomy moods, too. Though he freed the slaves, he would have welcomed a convenient place to send them. His commissioner of emigration, the Reverend James Mitchell, believed as did many others that the mere presence of blacks was the cause of the war:

Our republican institutions are not adapted to mixed races and classified people. Our institutions require a homogeneous population to rest on as a basis.

Thus the Reverend Mitchell, who wanted to send all the blacks to Mexico—others favored Liberia or, in a pinch, Kansas. Lincoln himself, meeting a black delegation in 1862 to explore the possibility of a colonization committee, told the delegation that the country had more or less gone berserk because of their presence. Ignoring the fact that blacks had not exactly rushed to America voluntarily, he added this: “There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.” In favoring colonization Lincoln later gave it as his opinion that the slaves he had freed would “gladly give their labor…till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race.”

Encouraged by various leaders, some blacks did dream hopefully of a Black state somewhere in the West—if possible not too close to Indian reservations, where the Indians who had survived the white onslaught were also spending time with those of their own blood and race, though not always in congenial climes. It may be that the continent-sized spaciousness of America encouraged many groups in the belief that they could have their own separate part of that space; the Mormons, for example, after many trials, simply marched off and took Utah for themselves.

2.

One Drop of Blood is a long, complicated history which seldom proceeds far in any one mode. Mr. Malcomson is alternately journalist, traveler, Oakland boy, historian, preacher, and legal analyst—this last as he tries to lead us through the maze of legislation having to do in some way with American tribes or races. As a writer he’s energetic, impetuous, and headstrong, with a rather pronounced tendency to dash this way and that. One might think that the complexity of race just on this large continent would be subject enough, but it isn’t. At one point he seems determined to trace notions of blackness all the way back to the Olduvai Gorge; or, failing that, at least to Egypt. He involves himself, a little unwisely, with the sons of Noah, or Shem, Ham, and Japeth at least. From there he speeds on to problems of love and race in Shakespeare’s England, probing the narratives of Peter Martyr, Oviedo, and López de Gómara for anticipations of future racial imagery. This is the kind of scholarly omnivorousness that got him briefly into trouble with Miss Czaplicka. The story of racial separatism in America, which is the story he’s really telling, is a whopping big story, in which Shakespeare and the sons of Noah can have but a sketchy place.

Nonetheless, when Mr. Malcomson does rein in his bucking, kicking narrative, as in the chapter “The Indian as Slave and Slaveholder,” or “Segregation from the American Revolution to the Gilded Age,” he is excellent, and also excellent in his last few chapters, when he revisits Oakland and attempts to relate racial attitudes in his spelling-bee youth to what he finds there today. Even when trodding well-trodden historical ground, such as the frequently told story of the Five Civilized Tribes and their removal to Oklahoma, he manages to find characters and angles that seem fresh. I like particularly his account of the Cherokee orator, editor, and writer Elias Boudinot. Born Buck Watie, he followed a literary path and took the name of a New Jersey benefactor. In 1828 he began his editorship of the Cherokee Phoenix, a bilingual newspaper published partly in English and partly in the written Cherokee made possible by Sequoyah’s syllabary. Boudinot’s brother, Stand Watie, took the military path and became a Confederate general—the last Confederate general to surrender, in 1865. But Elias Boudinot, if rarely too Indian for the whites, was eventually thought to be too white for the Indians. He was one of the in-between men, able to operate competently in both worlds, and, for that very reason, almost sure to finally earn the enmity of his tribe. He fell out with the famous Cherokee chief John Ross over the Removal Act, which, when enforced, sent the Five Civilized Tribes to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. Perhaps Boudinot merely recognized too early and too clearly the implacability of the forces ranged against the tribes, forces that included the unyielding Andrew Jackson and some stop-at-nothing Georgians. Soon after reaching Oklahoma Elias Boudinot was assassinated, for the treason of having sold tribal lands.

The upside of Scott Malcomson’s omnivorous reading is that he often dredges up remarkable quotations from nearly forgotten sources. Here, for example, is Senator Dawes of Massachusetts, reporting on a visit to Indian territory in 1885:

The head chief told me that there was not a family in the whole nation that had not a home of its own. There was not a pauper in the nation, and the nation does not owe a dollar…. Yet the de-fect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they hold their land in common…. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.

Senator Dawes and the famous commission he headed went back to Indian Territory a few years later and paved the road to civilization for the red man by destroying communal ownership of tribal lands, which made it much easier for the whites to wrest them from the Indians legally. After that there were plenty of paupers, plenty of dollars owed, and many families homeless.

It may be that Scott Malcomson’s youth in Oakland, amid Black Panthers, Gray Panthers, Asian-Americans, Okies, and inhibited white hymn-singers, was just the right preparation for writing this ambitious study of American separatism, a study that begins at the bombed-out Federal Building in Oklahoma City and ends at a little way station on the Underground Railroad, near the Ohio River.

During his long exploration of the themes of unity and disunity in American racial life—more of the latter than of the former, unfortunately—he is often in Oklahoma. In Boley, Oklahoma, one of the twenty-nine black townships settled by free slaves, he meets a dignified lady named Velma Ashley who thinks the town is ready for a few whites, it being her impression that whites have been better taught than blacks and thus might raise the conversational level a little. Oklahoma is particularly fer-tile ground for anyone investigating American separatism because, as a late-settled state, it was perhaps the only place where all three races, white, black, and red, could briefly dream of actually being separate from one another.

The Indians, forced to Indian Territory against their will, thought that the least the government could do would be to give them a state of their own; some wanted to call it Sequoyah, after their great man. The blacks, brought there as slaves to the Indians and freed by Lincoln, thought maybe there was enough land in this vast West—land that nobody else wanted—that they could finally have the all-black colony advocated by some of their own leaders (though not Frederick Douglass) and many whites. Alas, both Indians and blacks soon found out that there was no land the whites didn’t want. The blacks got their twenty-nine townships, the Indians got much diminished tribal lands, and the whites took the rest.

This is an old story, and Scott Malcomson certainly knows it’s an old story. One thing his long narrative reveals, perhaps more potently than he would want, is the tenacity of tribalism—and not just Native American tribalism, either. How many centuries from the Olduvai Gorge does humankind have to go before it stops seeing its own tribe as, essentially, the Human Beings, or the People—everyone else being something less than humans or people?

Mr. Malcomson, understandably, doesn’t like this. He would like more people to be like Velma Ashley, who would welcome a few white people in her town, or like Marcus Foster, the superintendent who made such a good speech after that citywide mixed-race spelling bee, or like the Cherokee nationalist David Cornsilk, who welcomes black Cherokees—although his wife doesn’t.

Mr. Malcomson doesn’t want Americans to be like the Symbionese Liberation Army, which killed Marcus Foster, or like the terrible road warrior Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Federal Building with so many innocents inside. And yet, running from the Federal Building through the Birmingham church bombing, through Philadelphia fire, through race riots in Rosewood, Florida, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and elsewhere, all the way back (at least) to the burning of the Pequots in Connecticut in 1637, has been a terrible string of incendiary massacres in America, and plenty of nonincendiary massacres, too, many of them the result of explicit programs of terror designed to discourage racial unity. Though Mr. Malcomson argues—and at times preaches—vigorously against separatism, I’m not sure he’s convinced that major change is likely any-time soon. After all, in America, if you can’t even claim Abraham Lincoln for your side, what chance do you have?