'Race is never as straightforward as it seems'

Professor's book challenges argument that race was a part of America's founding fabric

You may quibble with historian Jacqueline Jones' argument about when exactly race became a national preoccupation in America. But what's clear is that she's a persuasive storyteller, and her new book goes a long way toward showing rather than telling us how the notion of race in this country has evolved over the centuries.

In "A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama's America," the University of Texas at Austin professor argues that it's a myth that race was a part of America's founding fabric.

Instead, she says that race, which has no "basis in biology," began as an afterthought and didn't become a social construct until around the time of the American Revolution.

Jones argues that throughout our history, race has been used as a malleable tool that has been forged over and over to fit the political and economic whims of America's elite. The effect has been devastating for blacks who today face disproportionately high rates of incarceration, unemployment and poverty.

To illustrate her point, Jones profiles six African-Americans whose lives span half a millennium, from 1650s Colonial Maryland to late 20th-century industrial and postindustrial Detroit. I talked to Jones in advance of a book discussion she's leading on Saturday at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library on the Far South Side.

Jones, who is white, said she's been studying race since she was a child growing up in a small rural town in Delaware. She was in the second grade in 1954 when the Brown v. Board of Education decision ended legalized school segregation.

"Most of the black kids in town lived on Brown's Lane, behind my elementary school," she said. "They lived so close to the school but were bused out of town to another school, and that made an impression on me. I never understood it."

With the book, Jones said she wanted to re-create her subjects' lives to give readers an idea of how contingent race is on time and place.

"My point is that race is never as straightforward as it seems," she said. "You have to see who has the power. How do they use it? What's happening to the vulnerable people without the power? You have to ask: Who benefits from these ideas of racial differences?"

Jones said that during the 17th century and part of the 18th, many slaveholders weren't using race to justify slavery. She said they hadn't yet been challenged about the institution.

Her book opens with the story of an African slave named Antonio who worked on the tobacco plantation of a Dutch master in Maryland in the 1650s. Antonio toiled alongside other black slaves, but there were also Native Americans and whites, some of them free men and others indentured servants.

Jones said the planters weren't ideologically bound to the institution of slavery and weren't promoting the subjugation of one race over another. Instead, they were pragmatists who simply needed a cheap, exploitable labor force to work the fields.

"It wasn't until the 18th century that abolitionists began to challenge the institution of slavery, and the slaveholders had to come up with a defense and they hit upon the idea of race, and that blacks were different from whites," said Jones.

She said the notion of black inferiority began to take root around the American Revolution to justify black subordination to whites at the dawn of the new nation. It was then, she argues, that servitude became an inherited and nearly immutable status.

In the book, Jones also tells the stories of Boston King, a fugitive slave and evangelical preacher who used religion to advocate for racial harmony during the Revolution, and Elleanor Eldridge, an early 19th-century black businesswoman, who lived in Providence, R.I., and defied the stereotypes of the day.

Jones said that during the antebellum period, before the Civil War, many planters defended the institution of slavery by saying blacks were childlike and dependent.

"But during the Civil War, that notion of blacks changed to cast them as cunning and dangerous traitors to the Confederate cause," she said. "You see overnight, the slaveholders reversing their positions to fit their needs."

Jones also writes about Richard White, a Union veteran who looked white and could have passed in Savannah, Ga., but identified as black and fought discrimination; William H. Holtzclaw, who started a vocational school in early 20th-century Mississippi and encountered white merchants who tended to care less about race; and Simon Owens, a Detroit autoworker who became a labor organizer protesting the horrid conditions in factories.

The book's title, "A Dreadful Deceit," was inspired by the writings of black abolitionist David Walker, whose pamphlet "Walker's Appeal" was first published in 1829, more than two decades before Solomon Northup's memoir "Twelve Years a Slave." Walker wrote that white people had dreadfully deceived themselves into thinking black people are different and inferior.

Jones said she doesn't see race as a meaningful way to talk about groups of people because it blinds us to real problems, such as those rooted in class.

"In the end, I urge people to think about the word race and not to use it without giving it a second thought," she said. "When we use it, we make it concrete. The consequences are real but the idea is a fiction."

To learn more about the Saturday event and Jones, a MacArthur fellow and the author of several books on black women's history and black labor history, call 312-745-2080.

dtrice@tribune.com

Featured Stories

Advertisement

PLAN AHEAD

Top Trending Videos