Illuminating investigation of the historical binaries of race in America.
Before American independence, writes freelance journalist Brook, places such as Charleston and New Orleans turned on the assumption that “in the New World there was precious little racial purity” and that naturally and inevitably, people who came from far-flung ethnic groups would meet and intermingle. After independence, however, that changed: The official appointed to govern New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, for instance, quietly instituted procedures to limit the rights of supposedly nonwhite citizens even if, as a later activist who pressed for the rights of all citizens no matter what their ethnic composition noted, “if you were not informed you would be sure to pick out the white for colored & the colored for white.” Free, mixed-race communities in those cosmopolitan cities had long flourished, even if they were anomalous elsewhere. It outraged nativists, notes the author, that immigrants from Europe who arrived in the 19th century treated everyone they encountered as equals. Yet this equality was fleeting. South Carolina Reconstruction-era congressman Joseph Hayne Rainey observed in a speech before the House that in Charleston he could enjoy public amenities while in Washington, he was denied “the same benefits that are accorded to our white colleagues on this floor.” Things would only get worse for Rainey and others now classified as black in the postwar binary of race through the mechanism of Jim Crow laws throughout the country. The very idea of “black” and “white,” Brook ably demonstrates, is the product of segregation: “It is only because mixed-race activists failed, despite their valiant efforts, to stop a regime of race-based rights that contemporary Americans view society through the racial blinders that we do.” In his fluent narrative, the author shows how much we have lost by denying the reality that "we are mestizos, Creoles, misfits all.”
A provocative, welcome contribution to ethnic studies and the literature of civil rights.