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The White Man's Burden

ONE DROP OF BLOOD The American Misadventure of Race By Scott L. Malcomson Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 584 pp., $30

November 26, 2000|JIM SLEEPER | Jim Sleeper is the author of "The Closest of Strangers" and "Liberal Racism." He teaches a course on American politics and media at Yale

Ever since James Agee took rich samplings of America's racial subsoil in the late 1930s for "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," other young white writers have tried as he did to untangle the roots of this country's obsession with color. These penitential pilgrims have enlisted both journalism and scholarship in civic witness against "blood and soil" nationalism--not only the white supremacist triumphalism that has driven or rationalized so much territorial and cultural expansion but also the reactive, racially reparative kind championed by some Indians, Latinos and blacks who've dreamed of carving out protected spaces.

Scott Malcomson explores this in "One Drop of Blood" with a depth and acuity beyond Agee's, perhaps because he was born into some of the racial and spiritual mysteries of a continent that looked pristine to his own westward-trekking, hard-pressed white forebears. Some of Malcomson's ancestors carried what he calls a "faith-crazed" Baptist belief from colonial Virginia to Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma, commingling their blood with that of Cherokees and former slaves. Malcomson has found the descendants and talked with them. His conversations with them are intimate and arresting, not least because his father was a Baptist preacher who bequeathed an ambivalence about whiteness while raising the family in pastoral venues around the country.

The Malcomsons moved to Oakland in the late 1960s, just as Scott entered adolescence and the curse of race was catching up with what he characterizes as a white California dream of a "raceless" future that depends on denials of racism. The boy who was ready, if any white boy could be, to pioneer the new national frontier of colorful "racelessness" that lies before us felt only helplessness as he and classmates "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."

He resisted it then and in "One Drop of Blood" he tracks the many-headed monster to its lairs of racial protectionism, drawing us out into moral conversations about experiences like his childhood ones, writ large. Because his own viscera are entwined in the story, Malcomson's accounts of how whites' myths of racial belonging were woven--out of encounters with Indians in forests primeval, with blacks on African coasts and Virginia riverbanks and with Mexicans in the often-fatuous deliberations of the California Constitutional Convention of 1849--are moral without moralizing, intimate without self-pity or self-importance and only occasionally, forgivably self-indulgent. He spares us the all-too-familiar ceremonies of willful innocence and remorseful hand-wringing that media moralists and academic ideologues recycle to simulate redemption.

He writes learnedly but not academically, like Emerson's American Scholar ("Man Thinking"), and as a pilgrim who keeps the faith without imposing a doctrine, weaving threads of historical narrative, reportage, personal experience and cultural speculation into a tapestry of the national obsession with race whose vividness is both jarring and liberating: "America is not a crime scene; it is a place for the performance of a tragic drama" that need not stagger toward the expected sad conclusion. He explains how early 19th century white men, whose fathers hadn't been allowed to vote, staked claims on "frontier" land and a new social status before law or custom guaranteed it. "The land was ours before we were the land's," wrote Robert Frost, and Malcomson makes us know the gnawing insecurities that made racial identity the easiest organizing principle against civic chaos.

The result is a book almost biblical, as ungainly as it is imposing, with lots of "begats" (including Malcomson's own diffuse genealogy) and long passages that read like Herman Melville's accounts of the derivation and refinements of sperm whale oil. It's as messy as America is, but Malcomson's writing redeems the confusion with commanding flights of moral imagination and poetry.

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