A STUDY of 600 years of the “misadventure of race” began with a bewildered 11-year-old’s pain of losing his “preracial” childhood freedom.
It was in the ’70s, when Scott L. Malcomson was growing up in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, that he first noticed his friends were changing. Instead of following the allegiances of childhood, they were drifting away to separate camps, where they took up the flags of color.
“It was a painful process,” recalls Malcomson, who grew up as a good white son of liberal Baptists.
Nearly 30 years later, Malcomson, a former editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement, has woven together an amazing study of the irrevocably entangled heritage of American racial identity.
“One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race” has been described as “sprawling” more than once in favorable reviews. The 584-page tome follows the tortuous routes Americans have taken to define race through war, politics, economics, peace, literature, music and territory invariably without success.
Indeed, the title refers to a method used to distinguish a person’s nonwhite racial identity. Its very precision the notion that one drop of black blood made you nonwhite refers to a drop of blood that cannot, in fact, be isolated at all, underscoring how “imaginary” whiteness is.
This landmark book also includes a bird’s-eye view of growing up in the mixed-race community of 1970s Oakland.
Malcomson’s book tour brought him back to the Bay Area, where his first questionings of race began at Bret Harte Elementary School.
Sitting in a Berkeley waterfront hotel room smoking American Spirit cigarettes, he ponders what he wants people to take from his book, this formidable history he has devoted the last five years to uncovering.
“I really think that race has to be approached from the tragic point of view, by which I don’t mean a sad point of view,” Malcomson says. “A tragic one that accepts the unfairness of the past and accepts the unfairness of the present in a way so that it can be improved upon rather than just sort of constantly denied.”
The 39-year-old author says cultural amnesia is endemic among his own generation, especially his white peers, so he feels history is an important part of the contemporary discussion.
“Part of what I’m trying to do,” he says, “is to reveal just how repetitive American racial thinking has been over the centuries, in order to force people not to just do the same thing again.”
“One Drop of Blood” is divided into four sections: Indian, black, white and the Oakland case study. Throughout the text, Malcomson interweaves tales of individuals as well as lesser-known tragic figures such as Elias Boudinot, the Cherokee who became educated in the best American manner, only to be forced to sign away his people’s territory. He also knocks down revered idols such as John Locke, the philosopher who managed to reconcile natural rights and liberty with slave ownership.
The interjection of the personal into this book was deliberate on Malcomson’s part. “A lot of race writing has tended to be overly deterministic in that it becomes writing about three sort of super characters,” he says. “You write about these races as if they’re sort of like these, you know, coherent closed machines.”
Beyond these anecdotes, Malcomson directs us through a fascinating, tragicomic tour of the American racial imagination, which has managed to conjure up so-called formulas, philosophies and boundaries of race.
He shows us how notions of racial separatism have formed and crisscrossed between groups, even among those who had resisted color-based classification, until some adopted it in an effort to escape race altogether.
That’s what happened with the Cherokees, who along with other tribes accepted the notion of Indian-ness to negotiate self-government. That’s also what happened with black separatists, including Marcus Garvey, who unsuccessfully sought to repatriate black Americans to a colony that was more a “mythic Africa” of their past.
One might be tempted to see in Malcomson the sensitive boy who keenly felt the loss of his peers when he was tracked into the gifted class. He certainly is taller now (at 6 foot 5 inches), although he retains the thoughtful, wry good humor that defined the former spelling bee champion who hung out with the Chinese kids. He recalls fondly how they played mumblety-peg together and imitated scenes from Bruce Lee movies.
With a mix of regret and humor, Malcomson, who now lives in Brooklyn, knows that not all his message is positive. Unlike multiculturalism, which presents a “purely positive racial identity,” his no-holds-barred portrait of racial America is complex and challenging. No one escapes scrutiny, including the slave-owning Cherokees or the African chiefs selling their fellow countrymen.
White Americans in particular might feel their sense of belonging and identity less assured after reading “One Drop of Blood.” This is not a feel-good memoir that enables whites to come away saying “now I’m going to have a set of recipes that I can learn so I can cook the stuff and fill the house with smells and be in touch with, you know, the ancestral generations and everything,'” the author says.
“I’m not giving that to them because I can’t, because it doesn’t exist. Because white racial identity can never be that. But what I would argue is that the black past and the Indian past is also the past of whites, to the extent that they are American. The country needs that kind of memory among white Americans in order for the country to survive and prosper.”
While his intensely personal case study of Oakland might seem at odds with the previous three sections of the book, Malcomson wrote the Oakland segment to bring history to the present. To this end, he also inserted interviews throughout the book, such as the ones with modern-day Cherokee nationalists and a resident of an all-black town.
Malcomson’s own story sheds light on how his desire to create a new way of thinking and talking about race came about. Although his Baptist parents his father is a preacher had been involved in the civil rights movement, he says he had been raised without a historical consciousness.
“I was raised as a good American, as a good Californian, and raised to think that nothing that happened before my parents were adults really had any significance,” he recalls. “I mean I was raised as a white liberal. The past was something conservative.
“What we thought about was solving problems based on a timeless universal human standard. Which I think is a good thing to do, but it can lead to repetition of historical things because you refuse to recognize them as forces.”
These forces drove his peers to seek their collective racial identity or really, as Malcomson calls it, the desire for collective power. The separation between kids took on a violent edge; stabbings occurred for no fathomable reason except that those involved were of different races.
“We didn’t seek those things in racial forms because (the racial forms) had existed in us when we were 6. We did it because the society around us recognizes those forms as legitimate and as meaningful. And so we were children, and we adopted them.”
Malcomson resisted going the path of “whiteness,” which seemed the wrong route to a young boy raised by activists who was living in Oakland in the time of the Black Panthers movement, the Symbionese Liberation Army and the assassination of school superintendent Marcus Foster.
Yet, he says, “I could not be so lonely as not to belong in any group. The groups were racial, and the group that I could best fit myself into was Chinese.” This early association probably guided his later studies in Chinese history in his years at UC Berkeley.
Part of his hope for the book is that it will interest Americans in their shared and separate pasts, and stir new ways of talking about race: understanding it and using that understanding in daily life.
“It’s got to help,” he says, with renewed vigor. “I want it to be done in a better way. To be completely arrogant about it, I am hoping that this book will point towards a better way of doing it, a mature way of doing it and ultimately a more useful way of doing it. That being said, any kind of exposure, even on bad terms, must have benefits to it. Any kind of exposure.”