A powerful exploration of an enduring myth that has haunted America over the centuries, from one of our best chroniclers of America’s struggle with racial inequality.
Jones (History and Ideas/Univ. of Texas; Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, 2008, etc.) claims that race is a construct that has little meaning in biology even if it has had tremendous and deleterious force in historical reality. Instead of a sweeping overview, the author focuses on six biographical sketches that illustrate the pernicious force of the myth of race that has nonetheless manifested in the realities of racism from the Colonial era onward. Thus, a Dutch master’s killing of one of his slaves reveals the increasing tensions in a globalizing world. A fugitive slave in South Carolina embraces the teaching of religion in a Revolutionary era in which men spoke of ideals of freedom while protecting the institution of slavery. A free black businesswoman in post-Revolutionary Rhode Island navigates the treacherous waters of freedom in a world still deeply committed to perpetuating her subservience. A light-skinned black man in the Union Army becomes a loyal Republican in the postwar era and experiences the frustrations and disappointments of white racial solidarity. A Tuskegee Institute graduate founds his own vocational institution for blacks in Jim Crow Mississippi and manages to survive and sometimes thrive in arguably the most oppressive state in an oppressive region. And a black writer and union advocate in Detroit utilizes his relationships in organized labor to bridge racial divides. A graceful writer and natural storyteller, Jones draws meaning from these six tableaux, maintaining the thread of her argument without hammering away at it. She brings the story up to the present by revealing the ways in which the election of Barack Obama has hardly served to mask the ways in which the racial myth has done real harm.
From the “dreadful deceit” of race comes a masterful book about its history.