One Drop of Blood

The American Misadventure of Race

Scott Malcomson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A bold and original retelling of the story of race in America

Why has a nation founded upon precepts of freedom and universal humanity continually produced, through its preoccupation with race, a divided and constrained populace? This question is the starting point for Scott Malcomson's riveting and deeply researched account, which amplifies history with memoir and reportage.

From the beginning, Malcomson shows, a nation obsessed with invention began to create a new idea of race, investing it with unprecedented moral and social meaning. A succession of visionaries and opportunists, self-promoters and would-be reformers carried on the process, helping to define "black," "white," and "Indian" in opposition to one another, and in service to the aspirations and anxieties of each era. But the people who had to live within those definitions found them constraining. They sought to escape the limits of race imposed by escaping from other races or by controlling, confining, eliminating, or absorbing them, in a sad, absurd parade of events. Such efforts have never truly succeeded, yet their legacy haunts us, as we unhappily re-enact the drama of separatism in our schools, workplaces, and communities. By not only recounting the shared American tragicomedy of race but helping us to own, even to embrace it, this important book offers us a way at last to move beyond it.


Read an Excerpt

COLONIAL AMERICA AS EDENOur country, at the beginning, was already a work of art. When the earliest European colonists arrived on the shores of North America, they were astonished by the beauty of their surroundings. Native tribes generally practiced both hunting and agriculture, and both of these required fire. One burned brush to remove the hiding places of game animals and to clear land for planting. The result of this was a man-made ecology that created great stretches of meadow and airy forests; together they resembled what we now call “English”


Praise for One Drop of Blood

"Malcomson tracks with a Melvillean intensity the 'unbidden yet unstoppable' evolution of racial categorization in the United States. Close readings of history tease out the manifold ironies and contradictions of the subject."--The New Yorker

"Full of swift insights . . . The chapters speed by . . . like a crash course given by a brilliant teacher."--Daniel Blue, The San Francisco Chronicle

"This is cultural history written as a nation's collective memoir. Malcomson's ambitious narrative, spanning two centuries of an idea, is bound to become a cornerstone of the new American historiography."--Talk

"This book should be read with deliberation, for it invites serious reflection of a kind that for the fair-minded, rational person can only be liberating."--John C. Walter, Seattle Times

"The best single history of race in America in many years, the one to read if you only have time for one book on the subject."--David L. Chappell, Newsday

"Explosive and exhilarating . . . Carried through with an ardor and interpretive brilliance that rivals James Baldwin . . . Malcomson has set a new standard of open, honest dialogue on race in America."--Orlando Patterson, The New York Times Book Review

"Malcomson's accounts of how whites' myths of racial belonging were woven – out of encounters with Indians in forests primeval, with blacks on African coasts and Virginia riverbanks and with Mexicans in the often-fatuous deliberations of the California Constitutional Convention of 1849—are moral without moralizing, intimate without self-pity or self-importance . . . The result is a book almost biblical . . . with commanding flights of moral imagination and poetry."--Jim Sleeper, Los Angeles Times

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Scott Malcomson

  • Scott Malcomson has written for the New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. He is the author of two previous books.


Available Formats and Book Details

One Drop of Blood

The American Misadventure of Race

Scott Malcomson