Tackling Race Head-On To Expose A 'Dreadful Deceit'

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Race is a delicate and complicated subject in this country. Jacqueline Jones confronts it head on in her new book " A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America." Jones, who teaches history at the University of Texas, uses the stories of six Americans to illustrate her point - that race is just that, a myth.

One of those Americans is Boston King. He was a fugitive slave and evangelical preacher in late 18th century South Carolina. He freed himself by fleeing to British-occupied Charleston. But there too, he found themselves exploited, this time by the British. Even free blacks in Charleston were seen as a commodity - digging trenches, loading ammunition, washing clothes for officers in the military. And this, Jacqueline Jones says, is the point.

JACQUELINE JONES: It is the most vulnerable people who do face this kind of oppression. It is people who lack rights, and also who lack advocates. I think that certainly characterizes Boston King's fate. He was a person of color. He had no rights in colonial and revolutionary South Carolina, and so his labor could be appropriated with impunity. It was not because he was of a certain race or a certain temperament, or because he lacked intelligence. It was because he was uniquely vulnerable among all these different groups during this period.

MARTIN: Forgive me if this becomes a circular argument, but wasn't he made vulnerable by the color of his skin?

JONES: Certainly, that was a factor. And in some cases skin color became a stigma of sorts. But there is a vast spectrum of skin colors represented in this region of the world. Some people are very dark skinned and free. Some people are light-skinned and bound laborers as indentured servants were in colonial Virginia and elsewhere. Indians too were considered to have very dark skin. They were not Christians. They did not speak English. And yet there were factors that prevented their mass enslavement in British North America, and those factors were their organization in nation or confederations and the fact that they were, in many cases, armed.

MARTIN: I want to talk about Eleanor Eldridge, because her experience is so particular. She lived and thrived really, in some ways, at the end of the Industrial Revolution. But whites and blacks were competing for the same jobs, and she was ambitious and she was successful - and that was threatening to the white community around her.

JONES: Yes. She lived in Providence, Rhode Island for much of her life, in the first half of the 19th century. Now, Eleanor Eldridge belied the stereotype of African-Americans in New England at the time. Many white people were promoting the idea of all African-Americans were poor because they were naturally poor, they were...

MARTIN: Unambitious, lazy even.

JONES: ...unambitious and they were destined to remain poor. Eleanor Eldridge was a very savvy businesswoman, and a vester(ph), and at times she overextended herself in terms of buying real estate. And then she found herself victimized by creditors who went after her and compliant judges and sheriffs who repossessed her property. However, she fought back in a very dramatic way. She had a large number of employers who were her patrons and were willing to vouch for her in court, willing to help her pay for legal defense. And in the process, she managed to continue to thrive. But one of the ironies here is that one of the stereotypes also at the time held that black people were predatory, that they would not rest until they had taken jobs from white people. Well, these are very contradictory notions. But this episode, I think, reminds us that these racial mythologies are contradictory and they can be very malleable to suit the times.

MARTIN: What do you think is important about these parts of American history that perhaps hasn't been brought to light before?

JONES: I think we're so used to talking about race - race relations, racial prejudice, a post-racial society - that we forget that race is a myth. Race is not real.

MARTIN: But even, Jackie, as you know, President Obama gave a prominent speech on race in 2008. He said the word race at least a half a dozen times. We are limited by our language to some degree. What do we use instead of that word?

JONES: It is a tremendous challenge to, on the one hand, recognize that the effects of prejudices still linger in dramatic form - shape our society today - but on the other hand remind ourselves that by using the word race, we reify the notion, we reify the idea that somehow there are these differences based on a form of biological determinism. It is very much embedded in our vocabularies. But what I'm asking - and I know it seems unreasonable that people forego the use of the word all together - but I am asking people to think about what it means and when we use the word, we're really talking about a particular set of power relations.

MARTIN: Jacqueline Jones is a professor of Southern history at the University of Texas Austin. Her new book is called "A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America." Jackie, thanks so much for talking with us.

JONES: Thank you.


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