One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race

Book Excerpt: One Drop of Blood
The American Misadventure of Race

December 2000/January 2001
By Scott L. Malcomson

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 
October 2000; $30.00US/$47.00CAN; 0-374-24079-5

One Drop of Blood
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Why has, a nation dedicated to freedom and universal ideals continually produced, through its obsession with race, an unhappily divided people? Scott L. 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. Yet these definitions 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 — by founding, all-black towns, for example —  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.

SCOTT L. MALCOMSON has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other publications. He is the author of two previous books. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

"Scott Malcomson has written an impressive, complex, disturbing, and provocative book about the tangle of race, particularly as Americans have experienced it."
–Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, Crazy Horse, and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

"Scott Malcomson rescues us from silence. With this meticulous history, he has written a fabulous romance. He reminds us that American history is more than a tale of conflict and separation; we are united as a nation by an eroticism outlasting our denials and fear."
–Richard Rodriguez, author of Days of Obligation and Hunger of Memory

"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

"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

The following is an excerpt from the book One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race
by Scott L. Malcomson
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; October 2000; $30.00US/$47.00CAN; 0-374-24079-5
Copyright © 2000 Scott L. Malcomson




All the names, all those to- gether burned
names. So much 
ash to bless.
-Paul Celan, “Chemical”

The North Canadian River slips through Oklahoma City, which marches away from it, to the north and south, in an almost unbroken grid. Like many towns in the southern Great Plains, Oklahoma City grew up at a time when irregular curving rivers had given way to the more rigid lines of railroads (themselves soon replaced, on this level terrain, by straight highways). People came to Oklahoma because land was cheap; and evidently land remains cheap enough, for Oklahoma City is not built up. Even close to the center, people live in houses on evenly spaced lots. In a hot and moody climate the lawns and gardens stay green. During the dust-bowl years, Oklahoma land went from cheap to worthless, and tens of thousands of Okies, the poorest of the white Depression poor, left for yet another trek west; but when the bad weather had gone the state dammed the rivers, creating the lakes that provide the water that makes the lawns of Oklahoma City possible. On a rectangle of land you can make for yourself a garden, a lawn, a home. Oklahoma City is among the most man-made of American towns; it is what we, leaving nature aside, create for ourselves. The proud city turns its back on the river, especially at night, when everyone has returned safely home and the river drifts quietly by like a winding secret.

In this orderly city a bomb brought down a government building one workday, killing 168 people, either immediately or after dehydration, suffocation, or dripping away enough blood to die. Every age and race of American was among the murdered; it was a democratic torturing death. More than a year later, the site of the building remained empty, surrounded by rickety Cyclone fencing. Twisted or stuffed into the fence were T-shirts with scrawled messages, business cards, flowers, toy animals, a child’s pair of red sneakers. I visited the place on a sunny day in late autumn. A small but steady trickle of pilgrims passed slowly by this homemade shrine, reading certain messages out loud. Parents tried to explain matters to children. In a lot next to the fence stood an old tree, surprisingly unharmed, and an office chair; above them were two walls of buildings made useless by the explosion. On one, someone had painted a lengthy cry telling us that God demanded justice. On the other was the simple remark, “We Should Have Looted.” From the bombing site itself rivulets of reddish-brown water flowed beneath the fence and into the gutter, where visitors stood deciphering the T-shirt messages. One read, “God Bless America and Help US ALL.” We tiptoed and hopped about to avoid staining our shoes.

Many people had wedged sticks into the fence to form primitive crosses. There were dozens of them, and a few Christmas trees tightly bound to the wires. Were all of the victims Christian? There were many images and invocations of angels, and references to young victims who had become angels, and even some photographs of children now dead. I saw no pictures of adults, which was a surprise, because most of the bombing victims were not children. This business of angels came from the belief that children, upon death, unquestionably enter heaven. Adults, having no doubt sinned, cannot expect immediately to become angels. We are not assumed to be innocent. But it is worth recalling that children did not post these angel notices. In many cases their parents did. One family put together a holiday card with pictures of their two lost boys on one side and, on the reverse, a handwritten letter signed by those children from beyond the grave. The boys’ letter said they were happy in the other world and asked all who read it to pray, not for them, but for their family — for the very adults who, in this world, had actually written the letter. When these adults speak of innocents they are talking to themselves, saying, We are innocent. This is one way to make sense of things.

Another strange detail of the popular shrine to the dead at Oklahoma City was that the pictures of victims, at the time of my visit, all portrayed white people, although many of the dead were not white. Perhaps nonwhite families had felt this was not a place for them to mourn, or that they were not members of this larger, stricken family. Certainly the national face of the tragedy had been a white face, that of a white child. Immediately after the bombing, a spontaneous assumption of many Americans was that the bomber must have been nonwhite and non-Christian — in the event, an Arab Muslim man. This was another way to make sense of things. Within forty-eight hours several attacks took place against people who were thought, however vaguely, to be Arab Muslims. Once a young white Christian, Timothy McVeigh, was arrested, those many Americans who looked as if they might be Arab Muslims could harness their particular fear, and presumably those Americans who had suspected them swallowed shame.

Many of us cast the Oklahoma City bombing as a story in which innocent, childlike white American Christians were victims, a story of Terror in the Heartland. The heartland was by definition Christian, white, and blameless. The shrine at Oklahoma City was a spontaneous expression of this idea — not a media spin or a planned commemoration, just America talking to itself. Even those who were not present there — blacks, for example — participated in that conversation by not talking. We heard much about unity, about coming together, after the bombing. Timothy McVeigh — if he is as he has been portrayed, a government-hating white Christian separatist “sending a message" — made the event a perfect paradox: he killed a representative sample of Americans to send his separatist message, and we, in our confusion and pain, reacted by separating ourselves, each to his or her heartland. Thereby we did what he, a madman, wanted.

McVeigh’s madness lies in the belief that any of the American races can pursue a separate destiny and in that pursuit achieve a new life and freedom. Americans have believed this, in many different ways, for centuries. Our New World was indeed new, and full of possibilities for new forms of freedom — as well as limitless possibilities for chaos. The racial roles of Indian, black, and white were one leading aspect of American novelty. They formed channels through which social power might flow with some smoothness and social position might be understood. Since early-colonial times, none of these groups has ever been missing from the national equation. They came into being as part of the American experience, and their elaboration over the centuries is much of what makes America unique. Each is crucial to our collective imagination; without any one of them, we could not have a collective imagination. We could not have a nation.

Yet our American drive for newness has also led us into new forms of unfreedom. From the beginning, the people living out these racial roles of Indian, black, and white often felt them to be constricting. They wanted not to be reduced to instances of a race. So they sought to escape race by escaping — or controlling, separating off, eliminating, sometimes absorbing — that which alone made them racial, namely the existence of other races. One sought to go beyond race by escaping the reminders of one’s own racialness, to “separate” in order to become fully oneself and free, to solve this problem of race by starting afresh. Such efforts never entirely succeeded. It was already too late. The history of the New Worlds three-part racial division stuck to Americans like a burr, pricking at their skin, even as they went west, always west, hoping to start over.

Oklahoma was the last place to start over, the last truly Western place: Indian Territory did not join Oklahoma Territory to form the present state until 1907. Oklahoma is an extreme example, one I will often return to in the pages that follow. The state has been a laboratory of separatism. Its first extensive settlement was by Indian tribes relocated there in part, or so many believed, as a way of preserving their racial identity. Both blacks and whites arrived at the same time, the blacks as slaves to Indians. Blacks and whites began moving in large numbers to western Oklahoma (Oklahoma Territory) and eastern Oklahoma (Indian Territory) in the last great westward migration following the Civil War. In the early years of the twentieth century blacks and whites outnumbered Indians in Indian Territory. And it is a very revealing feature of those years that the members of each of these three groups, within living memory of the Civil War, had precisely the same goal: a separate state dominated by their own race. An impossible desire animated their hearts. Each wanted to be free and unencumbered by the others; indeed, the idea of freedom, as they understood it, required racial separatism. Even apart from economic considerations, these Americans seem to have felt they needed their own racial place in order to escape the past, to remake themselves, to become new people — to become, at last, innocent, each to itself, after nearly three hundred years together.

Not quite a century after these unsuccessful efforts at separation Timothy McVeigh arrived in Oklahoma City to send his message. I couldn’t help seeing his act, however hideous, and the commemorations that followed it as part of an American pattern. At the site of that vast killing, adults faced with the immensity of political terror and death were trying to recast themselves as children, who were not to blame, and in the process once again separating into people with races — which was the same separation that had led, in a way, to the terror and death. This suggested to me that the past was forming them, in spite of themselves. That past is the past of race in America — not the past of racism, but of race in itself, and of race in our selves. The racial roles we play as Americans have tended to be repeated over the course of American history; I should say, we have tended to repeat them. And we regret this, and tell ourselves that we will start fresh, the past will stop now, and will not hold us any more than it holds an innocent child. Then we repeat our race roles again.

I have done this, too. I think most Americans do. It cannot be undone, but perhaps it could be done differently. When I was growing up, in Oakland, California, I knew many different kinds of people. The city had a great mixture of peoples. I can remember, faintly, what it was like when, as children, we did not attach much significance to the colors of our skins. I can also remember, more clearly, what it was like when we fit into those skins and began to separate, friend from friend, into races — to think with our skins, so to speak, and to act in them — a painful and violent process. These were roles prepared by the American generations that had gone before; the past was forming us, and so we would carry that past into the future. I have never ceased regretting that process, because it diminished each of us.

We cannot successfully choose not to have a past. But we might find a common past that, if we can claim it in all its tragicomic fullness, with all its passionate murders and lasting intimacies, will enable us to do something more than repeat our racial roles, the divisions that steal among us to mock our humanity. Perhaps we can identify the past that haunts us — not to exorcise it but to live with it, and slow the pace of our repetitions, ease the sharpness of our separations, overcome the thoughtlessness of our racial roles.

The name Oklahoma was cobbled from two Choctaw words, for red and people. By coincidence, the dirt of western Oklahoma has a red cast, which is why the rivulets flowing from the bombing site appeared to come from a wound. In that flowing water I did see the color of blood, which is the same for all of us. In the popular commemorations I saw the color of skin, which is not the same for all of us; and I wanted to know why that separation had taken place, unbidden, probably unwanted, here at the site of this tremendous murder committed by my mad countryman.

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