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Pet Sins September 2002

One Drop of Blood

One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race is a timely look at the unsettled issue of racial identity in the United States. Author Scott L. Malcomson covers five centuries of America's racial past in a colorful montage of old folklore and historical accounts. Malcomson makes delightful use of lesser known tales and events, together with well-known stories.Tracing the development of racial identity within each branch of the "American tripod of race" - Indian, black and white, Malcomson explores how a group's self-definition came to be shaped both by its definitions of others and others' definitions of itself.Malcomson also delves into the evolution of different factions of racial thought in individual racial "communities". While reading Malcomson's meticulous study, one marvels at how differing views from various past schools of racial thinking have reconstituted themselves in the minds of today's individual Americans (of different races) as contradictory beliefs.

Malcomson skillfully interweaves episodes from his 1970s Oakland, California boyhood with events in Oakland history. Erudite and entertaining, One Drop of Blood fluidly transitions between historical narrative and personal experience, engaging the reader in a fascinating discourse between the past and the present.

It is a rare that a writer can remain balanced and even-toned while being deeply personal in the same breath. This is especially so with a topic as heated as race, where progressions into accusations, shaky conclusions and anger are common (though not always unwarranted). Malcomson, however, uses both head and heart when he writes:

I did try to find Lamont, and failed. I mentioned him to Captain Reginald Lyles, a former Panther and Oaklander who is now a police officer... He suggested checking the prisons, saying that the California prison population has gone from 30,000 in 1985 to 150,000 a decade later. Yes, of course, the prisons. Is it because we are a nomadic nation that we exceed all other democracies in immobilizing our citizens? Lyles called the incarceration boom "the new slavery" ... The national rise in imprisonment simply removed part of several American generations from daily life - black generations, many thousands of young men, not "needed". Thirteen percent of illegal-drug users in America are black, and 74 percent of the people imprisoned for possession of illegal drugs are black. Most white drug users could not get into jail on a bet. I did not look for my boyhood friend in prison, because I thought I might find him, there, enacting one of the most bitter race roles of our period.

Malcomson's quiet understatement when revisiting this much discussed topic brings home the injustice and tragedy with new impact. Easy to read, yet sophisticated in its approach, One Drop of Blood's combination of complexity and accessibility has the potential to appeal to a broad readership. To a non-American reader not directly embroiled the American dialogue of race, Malcomson's masterful story-telling brings the puzzling nature of a complicated foreign conflict closer to understanding. To an American reader, One Drop of Blood grounds present attitudes in past ideologies, locates individual predicaments in collective experience, and connects the personal with the historical.

Scott L. Malcomson has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other publications. He is the author of two previous books. One Drop of Blood was published in October 2000 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.