Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ariela J. Gross's "What Blood Won't Tell"

Ariela J. Gross is John B. & Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law & History at the Gould School of Law, University of Southern California.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, and reported the following:
What Blood Won’t Tell is a history of race and racism in the United States, told through the stories of trials of racial identity, cases where courts or administrative bodies had to figure out whether someone was white, black, or Indian. The book asks the question, 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. One explained that a native of Louisiana can sense African blood “the way an alligator knows a storm is coming.” That notion of race as common sense, something we know when we see, is remarkably persistent. Morrison’s court trial—and many others over the last one hundred fifty years—involved high stakes: freedom, property, and civil rights. And they all turned on the question of racial identity. 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, drawing an imaginary connection between racial identity and fitness for citizenship. This false equation of whiteness and citizenship remains potent today and continues to impede racial justice and equality.

Page 99 of the book concerns a 1925 trial in New York City that got a lot of attention because it involved a wealthy socialite, Leonard Rhinelander, trying to get out of his marriage to Alice by claiming that she deceived him about her “colored blood.” On page 99, I talk about the trial in terms of what it tells us about racial common sense.

The jury deliberated on four specific questions: whether Alice had concealed her “colored blood”; whether she had represented to Leonard that she was not of “colored blood”; whether she did so in order to induce him to marry her; and whether he would have married her if he had known the truth. The jury answered the first three questions in the negative, and the final one affirmatively; in other words, they believed that Leonard must have known that Alice was “colored” and married her anyway. Like the Southern women accused by husbands of racial fraud, Alice Jones benefited from the community’s wish to see race as knowable and so she won her case, although she paid a steep price in public humiliation, disrobing in court as Alexina Morrison had done sixty years before. As the black newspaper the Amsterdam News commented, “Few women of any race would have paid so dear a price.”

The Rhinelander case drew wide public commentary in New York. W.E.B. Dubois commented, “If Rhinelander had used this girl as concubine or prostitute, white America would have raised no word of protest ... It is when he legally and decently marries the girl that Hell breaks loose and literally tears the pair apart.” White author U.S. Poson used the case to show the inevitability of miscegenation. “America is a melting pot, and in the process of melting it is only natural for the colored race to become part of the process.” But the most enduring significance of the Rhinelander case is that even in the Northeast, racial “common sense” required constant shoring up. The reassurance whites sought that race could be known by association could not be achieved without acknowledging that interracial intimacy did take place even in the era of Jim Crow.
Read an excerpt from What Blood Won't Tell, and learn more about the book and author at Ariela Gross's website.

--Marshal Zeringue