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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race, by Scott Malcomson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2000
Malcomson argues that the living ghosts of American racism are all around us, embodied in attacks on affirmative action, and Christian Identity white separatist communities, and the despair in some people of color that white people can ever be anything but enemies. To move forward, Malcomson says, first look backwards.
He guides us through the colonization of America, and the beginnings of race consciousness. He argues that when this country was in the process of colonization by the English, America was a tri-racial society: white, black, and American Indian. He spends the first section of his book exploring the early Indian community response to white supremacy. Malcomson begins with David Cornsilk, present-day Cherokee nationalist, carries us through colonialism and the beginnings of racial separatism in the Cherokee nation, and then brings us back into the twentieth century--all in 122 pages. This section of the book is the thinnest; Malcomson devotes the following 400 pages to white and black separatist movements. But he does introduce his major theme in this first section: the movement of the Cherokees, once they see the true nature of American colonialism, towards a radial separatist utopia.
He quotes Lincoln, in his first meeting with Indian leaders, as explaining some of the differences between the white and Indian races: "Although we are now engaged in a great war between one another, we are not, as a race, so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren." Unfortunately, there appears to be no record, at least in Malcomson's book, as to the response that the "red brethren" made to such an outrageous statement. But Malcomson analyzes Lincoln's racial madness: "One might have thought that the carnage of a civil war between white people, widely understood as such at the time, would have undermined the belief in white civilization as superior, not to mention more peaceful--perhaps even have undermined the belief in whiteness itself. White people were killing each other all around Lincoln; he was himself directing much of the killing; and so his seemingly mad assertion of the white race's comparative amiability must have answered a deep need to take an observable, unattractive feature of white behavior and attribute it to another race. If that race were removed from the nation, then would not the unwanted behavior cease as well? In which case the white American race could advance to prosperity and reach that destiny uniquely its own."
One can only imagine that separatist thought and community would flourish when faced with such a "liberator" as Lincoln. As Indians sought a destiny separate from their white oppressors, white people discovered the benefits of separatism. In the early 1800s, "liberal" whites tried to figure out what to do about the slaves who had been brought to America. Malcomson explains the racial dichotomy of the times: "White separatism created black separatism, and the solidifying of both coincided with the creation of our nation. Neither race, at this point, appears to have assigned much positive meaning to its racial identity--whites did not desire to be white as such. Their principle wish as whites was not to be black." At around this time, a free black-Indian sea captain in Massachusetts, Paul Cuffe, begin conceptualizing a return to Africa for free blacks in America. This call was enthusiastically taken up by white people. In 1816, the American Society for Colonizing Free People of Color in the United States was formed. At the society's first meeting, Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, stated: "Can there be a nobler cause than that which, whilst it proposed to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous part of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe!" To this, Malcomson wryly remarks: "Evidently, blacks, who were useless and dangerous in the United States, would become propagators of civilization once they crossed the Atlantic."
Malcomson brings us through the Harlem Renaissance, and then the black nationalist movement, and he ends this section by contemplating racial separatism with Velma Ashley, an elderly resident of the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma. He then begins the third section of the book with a service in the Universal Church of God, a Christian Identity movement church which claims white racial supremacy over all by God's divine destiny. Christian Identity is strongly linked with organizations such as Aryan Nation, and one does wonder how Malcomson got in there. He is asked to preach, and he (sweating, no doubt) presents a sermon which he thought would help the people there think about racial identity. It does--but not in the way he was expecting. And so he plays out the misunderstandings of race and racism in a most unlikely setting.
This leads into Malcomson's exploration of white America. In some ways, this book might easily be titled: "How White People Became White." In a sense, his other cultural explorations lead him here--how, and why, are white people white? He brings us into the complicated worlds of blackface minstrelsy and white flight, always examining and probing at the complex conflicts present in American culture. He argues that white people are white because of what their ancestors have done, that white supremacy, unquestioned, leads only to more white supremacy. There is a sense of America as young, and without history, and this is exactly what Malcomson argues against: "...we Americans, on the whole, inherit very little. We live in such silence....Who cared, even then, what George Washington's father had to say? ...what we really have inherited is so small, a few thoughts and thoughtless reactions that we tend to repeat. Among these often repetitive small inheritances is the conviction, particularly strong among white Americans, that we do not repeat ourselves. In despair we inherit a belief that the past does not matter--we can start over, we can go beyond the racial thinking that, deep down, nearly every American has known is not a wise way of thinking--the funny and often tragic part being that this antihistorical belief itself is an inheritance from our past....this cup of timeless, unreal freedom we keep inheriting in each generation is a poisoned cup."
Malcomson describes his childhood, and his city, Oakland, California. He looks at the cruel realities of his life, and his own family inheritance--his people, as he says, were slave owners. He sits down and cries, more than once, with the African American friends of his family.
This book is a stunning social history of race in America, but it does have its weak points. The treatment of American Indians is not as thorough as that of blacks and whites. There is also some blurring of racial separatism with racial segregation. Though Malcomson clearly understands the difference between the two, he also clearly yearns for an end to separatism. However, there doesn't seem to be a full exploration of the importance of racial separatism for oppressed communities. Malcomson makes a good point--that separatism in defense of self-preservation plays directly into white supremacist hands, for what these supremacists seek is also racial separatism. But he doesn't explore the necessity for some kinds of community building within the context of the community, rather than within the oppressive larger culture.
Malcomson digs deep and brings forth the roots of racism in America. He asks us to look at attacks on affirmative action and on people of color as utterly historical, rather than antihistorical. Most of all, he asks us to acknowledge the living ghosts of our ancestors in our midst.
--Erin Miller is a writer living in Beverly, MA.