Is race something we know when we see it? In 1857, Alexina Morrison, a slave in Louisiana, ran away from her master and surrendered herself to the parish jail for protection. Blue-eyed and blond, Morrison successfully convinced white society that she was one of them. When she sued for her freedom, witnesses assured the jury that she was white, and that they would have known if she had a drop of African blood. Morrison’s court trial—and many others over the last 150 years—involved high stakes: freedom, property, and civil rights. And they all turned on the question of racial identity.
Over the past two centuries, individuals and groups (among them Mexican Americans, Indians, Asian immigrants, and Melungeons) have fought to establish their whiteness in order to lay claim to full citizenship in local courtrooms, administrative and legislative hearings, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Morrison’s case, these trials have often turned less on legal definitions of race as percentages of blood or ancestry than on the way people presented themselves to society and demonstrated their moral and civic character.
Unearthing the legal history of racial identity, Ariela Gross’s book examines the paradoxical and often circular relationship of race and the perceived capacity for citizenship in American society. This book reminds us that the imaginary connection between racial identity and fitness for citizenship remains potent today and continues to impede racial justice and equality.
What Blood Won't Tell brings us at long last a brilliant analysis of the changing meanings of race in American law from the colonial era to the present. It will be indispensable for any informed discussions of a subject that lies at the very core of both American history and identity. --David Brion Davis, author of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World
This exquisite inquiry into the complex and shifting ways in which the 'black-white' divide has been marked over the last three centuries excavates the deep roots of racial identification.--Patricia J. Williams, author of The Alchemy of Race and Rights
And Publishers Weekly's review:
Through a close reading of racial identity trials in America, this book offers an eloquent contribution to ongoing debates over affirmative action, identity politics and the construction of a "colorblind" society. Historian Gross argues that racial identity trials--court cases in which outcomes turned on determining a person's "race" and their concomitant rights and privileges--provides an excellent basis for viewing the construction of "whiteness" and assessing the volatile category of race in American society. The author rigorously examines select cases including the outcomes of suits for freedom by onetime slaves like Abby Guy, who in 1857 convinced an all-white male jury that she was white and thus deserving of freedom. Upsetting the familiar notion of the "one-drop rule" in determining racial identity, Gross shows that in such cases the notion of what constituted race was itself as much in play as whether a particular individual could be identified (through some unstable combination of expert and "common sense" opinion) as one race or another. The social "performance" of identity is key, and enduringly so, as Gross periodically underscores by reference to various modern debates and trends. (starred review)
Read the introduction here.