Mixing it up

The author of "One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race" picks five books in which racial lines go blurry.

Published December 1, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Race is something Americans have in common. We share its divisiveness -- and we have the million ways in which race has failed to divide us. Races have overlapped, changed and mixed throughout our history. These are some of my favorite books on the permeability of the idea of race:

New English Canaan by Thomas Morton of "Merrymount"
Morton was the first great American party animal to leave us a record. Long known almost exclusively by scholars, his "New English Canaan" emerged into the sun this year in a labor-of-love edition by Jack Dempsey. Morton is the kind to inspire mad love. In 1622 he wrote, "It was my chance to be landed in the parts of New England, where I found two sorts of people, the one Christians, the other Infidels, these I found most full of humanity, and more friendly than the other." Morton went toe-to-toe with Miles Standish, wrote bad poems, erected a maypole for dancing, partied with the Indians and in general presented a (long-neglected) alternative to the Puritan way of life. When Morton writes of New England's "lusty trees" and "dainty fine round rising hillucks," you know he was down with his bad self.

The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives edited by T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker
There are many published versions of the interviews with former slaves conducted by Works Progress Administration interviewers in the 1930s. The Bakers' volume is my favorite because it includes censored material and reproduces the interview responses verbatim. Because these stories are from Oklahoma, you get many interviews with people who were slaves to Indian masters -- an underappreciated episode in the history of race in America. The ways in which distinctions of white, Indian and black could break down in the time of slavery are vividly illustrated in the first-person recollections.

Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History by Wilson Jeremiah Moses
Moses is among the very best students of American literature and racial politics working today, and this book is his summa. He's no longer young, he has tenure and here he abandons politeness. His crushing remarks on Mary Lefkowitz's appalling book "Not Out of Africa" let you know he won't be wasting time. The rest of the book -- an erudite meditation on literature, race and in particular the impossible dreams of racial contentment -- is brisk and brilliant. Moses' genius lies in his ability to look at black and white Americans as involved in a single, ongoing drama; he leaves racial "authenticity" (and imitation) aside, and thereby makes the crazy American synthesis plain.

Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic By William G. McLoughlin
McLoughlin's history of the Cherokee tribe in the period 1790-1833 is all about assimilation, separatism and how races are defined. In this period, the Cherokees did very well at adopting white American ways of life. These ways included holding blacks as slaves, accumulating private property, employing white tenant farmers and becoming Christian. Yet enough white Americans did not want an Indian tribe thriving on land that could as well have been used by real whites (so to speak) that the most assimilated and successful of tribes had to be expelled westward, beyond the white country of Jacksonian democracy. Like Moses, McLoughlin gets his pleasure -- and his sophisticated investigations get their force -- by examining the complex interplay of competing ideas about race and power, not by trying to find who was a "real" Indian or white person and who was fake.

Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus
The first good novel written in Greek (third or fourth century), "Ethiopian Story" is also the first novel about color mixing. The heroine, Chariclea, is a white woman with two black parents, the king and queen of Ethiopia. When Chariclea is born, her mother abandons her for fear of being accused of adultery. High jinks ensue: pirates and other robbers, nutty divines, narrow escapes, star-crossed lovers, dubious storytelling coincidences. In short, all the apparatus of a fine romance novel -- a form that Heliodorus' book would heavily influence in Europe 1,200 years after he wrote it. And yes, there is a reconciliation at the end, and happiness for the heroes.

By Scott Malcomson

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