Cover image for A Dreadful Deceit
A Dreadful Deceit

The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America
Jones, Jacqueline
In 1656, a planter in colonial Maryland tortured and killed one of his slaves, an Angolan man named Antonio who refused to work the fields. Over three centuries later, a Detroit labor organizer named Simon Owens watched as strikebreakers wielding bats and lead pipes beat his fellow autoworkers for protesting their inhumane working conditions. Antonio and Owens had nothing in common but the color of their skin and the economic injustices they battled—yet the former is what defines them in America’s consciousness. In A Dreadful Deceit, award-winning historian Jacqueline Jones traces the lives of these two men and four other African Americans to reveal how the concept of race has obscured the factors that truly divide and unite us. Expansive, visionary, and provocative, A Dreadful Deceit explodes the pernicious fiction that has shaped American history.
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In 1656, a planter in colonial Maryland tortured and killed one of his slaves, an Angolan man named Antonio who refused to work the fields. Over three centuries later, a Detroit labor organizer named Simon Owens watched as strikebreakers wielding bats and lead pipes beat his fellow autoworkers for protesting their inhumane working conditions. Antonio and Owens had nothing in common but the color of their skin and the economic injustices they battled--yet the former is what defines them in America's consciousness. In A Dreadful Deceit , award-winning historian Jacqueline Jones traces the lives of these two men and four other African Americans to reveal how the concept of race has obscured the factors that truly divide and unite us.

Expansive, visionary, and provocative, A Dreadful Deceit explodes the pernicious fiction that has shaped American history.

Author Notes

Jacqueline Jones is Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin. Winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Bancroft Prize for American History, among many other awards and distinctions, she lives in Austin, TX.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

MacArthur Fellow and Bancroft Prize-winning historian Jones's aim in this heartfelt book is to redefine our ideas of what constitutes "race" while arguing that the entire foundation of racial categorizing is unscientific and deeply injurious historically. While that argument is widely held by scientists and scholars, it still lacks widespread acceptance. So in what is the most persuasive and satisfying feature of this authoritative book, Jones relates the stories of six "black" Americans across different eras spanning nearly half a millennium. These riveting tales emerge from Jones's deep knowledge of African-American history and her brilliant use of previously unexploited sources. If at times unsubtle-Jones finds it necessary to keep reminding us that "race" is mythic, not real-she leaves no doubt that ever-changing racial mythologies "have nothing to do with biological determinism and everything to do with power relations." Racial ideologies, she shows, have long been a pretext for injustice, are always in flux, and while they deeply affect us all, have never extinguished the robust determination of the oppressed to gain safety, dignity, and a rightful place in the nation's civic life. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writers House. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Despite the long, tortured American history surrounding race, the thing itself is mythology, a social construct used to rationalize exploitation and abuse of power, argues historian Jones. Focusing on the lives of six African Americans, she traces the use of race to exploit from the seventeenth to the late-twentieth centuries. Jones asks the question, Who benefits from racial difference?, as a focusing point for her portraits of Antonio, an enslaved African living in colonial Maryland, killed by his master because he refused to work in the fields; Boston King, a fugitive slave who sought spiritual equality among all men and women in Maryland; Elleanor Eldridge, a nineteenth-century Rhode Island businesswoman engaged in land-owning disputes as she defied stereotypes; Richard W. White, a Union veteran who appeared white but pushed for civil rights for freed slaves; William H. Holtzclaw, a Tuskegee Institute graduate who founded his own small vocational institute in rural Mississippi; and Simon P. Owens, a Detroit labor organizer who developed a Marxist-humanist collective challenging new assembly-line technologies that threatened the humanity of workers. Through these six individuals, Jones offers a provocative analysis of race and the abuse of power.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

AMERICANS HAVE STRUGGLED mightily since the nation's birth to overcome racial prejudice. Recently, as symbolized by President Obama's ascendancy and his message of racial reconciliation, we have basically succeeded and are now healing from our racial wounds. Or so the story goes. In "A Dreadful Deceit," the distinguished historian Jacqueline Jones vehemently rejects this redemptive and self-congratulatory narrative. She believes that the country's racial problems have little to do with racism and everything to do with economic exploitation. And, she claims, we have not even begun to come to terms with this. Jones is the author of numerous books, including "Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow," which won the Bancroft Prize in 1986. This new book, a sweeping account of the role of race in American history, is structured around the stories of six extraordinary but largely unknown individuals, each of African descent. There's Antonio, murdered in colonial Maryland for refusing to submit to enslavement; Boston King, a former slave from South Carolina turned loyalist during the American Revolution; the Afro-Indian Elleanor Eldridge, who started several successful businesses in Providence, R.I., in the early 19th century; the Reconstruction-era Georgia politician Richard W. White; the early-20th-century educator William H. Holtzclaw, who founded a Tuskegee-like school in Mississippi; and finally the radical labor activist Simon P. Owens in mid-20th-century Detroit. The six stories, told in vivid detail, are fascinating and a pleasure to read, particularly the one about Owens, whom Jones sometimes uses as a mouthpiece. Yet the life Jones is most interested in is the life of the concept of "race," which, following the radical abolitionist David Walker, she terms a "dreadful deceit." Her book is a call to renounce the very idea of race as a dangerous misconception. This argument will be familiar to scholars, but Jones seeks to bring it to a broader audience. To explain how racial conflict has masked power struggles for control over others' labor, Jones surveys compelled work in its many varieties, from slave labor under the lash on tobacco plantations in Maryland to mandatory overtime in unsafe and sweltering auto plants in Detroit. Racial ideologies, she argues, are like mob violence, disenfranchisement and discriminatory laws - merely tactics used to secure material advantages in social contexts perceived as zero-sum. So the refusal of white colonists to recognize black claims to equal liberty was not premised on racial considerations, Jones argues, but on naked self-interest. She acknowledges that intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson were moved to reconcile Enlightenment values with slavery. But most propertied white men didn't see a need to justify their dominance apart from citing their economic interests, the same interests that led them to exploit Indians, poor whites and women. A racial justification for slavery emerged only in the 19th century, in response to the Northern abolitionist movement. Similarly, Jones describes early-19th-century white working-class hostility to blacks as springing from economic competition. "By keeping blacks in menial jobs permanently," she writes, "whites might reserve new and better opportunities for themselves and ensure that someone else did the ill-paying, disagreeable work." Throughout the period from colonial settlement to the Civil War, she says, racial ideologies played only a minor role in sustaining white dominance. Jones acknowledges that "whiteness" functioned as a powerful idea during Reconstruction, uniting whites of opposing political views and conflicting class interests. But racial ideologies were "remade" at the turn of the 20th century, when blacks were imprisoned or killed as sexual and criminal deviants in order to prevent them from joining forces with poor whites against white elites. Moving into the present, she attributes contemporary ghetto poverty and its associated ills to a lack of jobs for low-skilled workers. Black subordination no longer requires racial myths to perpetuate it. Vulnerable blacks can be defrauded, imprisoned, disenfranchised and left to die in floodwaters without appeals to race. A core theme in "A Dreadful Deceit" is the contradictory depictions of blacks. They are at once lazy, childlike, stupid and submissive, but also murderous, calculating and subversive, intent on stealing white men's jobs. Jones regards this lack of coherence as evidence that a conception of inherent racial difference has not been a driving factor in the way whites have treated blacks. And she laments the preoccupation with battling these myths, which she believes too often obscure the pressing need to address material inequality. YET ISN'T IT obvious that whites sometimes hate blacks simply because they are black? No, Jones says. When whites express contempt or hatred for blacks it is because of the stigma attached to servitude, or because blacks have refused to submit quietly to economic marginalization. Jones celebrates interracial working-class solidarity (though she recognizes that white workers have generally resisted uniting with black workers). At the same time, she is ambivalent about whether "blackness" itself can ever be a basis for identity or solidarity. She says of Owens, "Because generations of white people had defined him and all other blacks first and foremost as 'Negroes,' he had no alternative but to acknowledge - or rather, react to - that spurious identity." Even if what blacks have in common is not their race but "an overarching political vulnerability traced back to enslaved forebears, a political and historical status," there might be times, she admits, when it would be legitimate to describe this commonality using the language of race. However, she also believes that doing so keeps a "destructive" idea alive. Jones's argument shares features with W.E.B. Du Bois's theory in his 1940 book, "Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept." But the differences make a difference. Du Bois too welcomed multiracial working-class solidarity, yet he thought that many oppressed whites were strongly attached to their "whiteness" as a marker of status, despite the fact that it brought them few or no material advantages. While Jones contends that racial justifications for unequal treatment are tactical and self-serving lies, Du Bois emphasized that those who accept racist thinking are generally self-deceived, entranced by mystifying fictions. And although he is no less concerned about black economic disadvantage than Jones, Du Bois worried as well about the self-contempt that racial defamation causes. Material well-being without self-respect, he insisted, is an undignified existence. Precisely because race is, as Jones says, a "strange and shifting idea," both malleable and capacious, Du Bois believed it could be remade and used for good. Over the years, those who have had the label "black" imposed on them have revised its meaning to better reflect their experiences and collective memory, and employed it as a means of overcoming their oppression. Thus, "black is beautiful," "black pride," even "black power." When Du Bois called on the "darker races" to stand together against imperialism, economic exploitation and white supremacy, he was invoking race, but not in a morally troubling way. Engagement with Du Boisian ideas might have made "A Dreadful Deceit" more convincing (and its practical implications less ambiguous). Still, if contemporary discussions of race could be focused on the interconnections between racial ideologies, political power and economic vulnerability, as Jones would like, that would be a dramatic improvement over the "postracial" narratives that currently reign. TOMMIE SHELBY, a professor of philosophy and of African and African-American studies at Harvard, is the author of "We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity."

Choice Review

Jones (Texas) correctly identifies locale and economic status as significant determinants for inequality, supporting William Julius Wilson's earlier work, The Declining Significance of Race (1978). However, Cornel West's Race Matters (1993) confirmed the reality that as a social construct, being black is also important. Confirming the conclusions of both of these seminal works, Jones examines the lives of six little-known African Americans from the Colonial era to the present and how they resisted the stereotypical images ascribed to persons of color. She concludes, powerfully, that their experiences are important to understanding today's bifurcated society. Over nearly 400 years, these men and women of varying colors and hues suffered from what Jones describes as an American creation myth: that African Americans belong to a race separate and distinct from the dominant group. It remains, as Winthrop Jordan wrote in his classic White over Black (CH, Apr'68), a reality that being classified as black allowed being enslaved by Europeans. Until the myth of race is repudiated, the separation will continue. Clearly argued and beautifully written, this book is mandatory reading for everyone. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. D. R. Jamieson Ashland University

Kirkus Review

A powerful exploration of an enduring myth that has haunted America over the centuries, from one of our best chroniclers of America's struggle with racial inequality. Jones (History and Ideas/Univ. of Texas; Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, 2008, etc.) claims that race is a construct that has little meaning in biology even if it has had tremendous and deleterious force in historical reality. Instead of a sweeping overview, the author focuses on six biographical sketches that illustrate the pernicious force of the myth of race that has nonetheless manifested in the realities of racism from the Colonial era onward. Thus, a Dutch master's killing of one of his slaves reveals the increasing tensions in a globalizing world. A fugitive slave in South Carolina embraces the teaching of religion in a Revolutionary era in which men spoke of ideals of freedom while protecting the institution of slavery. A free black businesswoman in post-Revolutionary Rhode Island navigates the treacherous waters of freedom in a world still deeply committed to perpetuating her subservience. A light-skinned black man in the Union Army becomes a loyal Republican in the postwar era and experiences the frustrations and disappointments of white racial solidarity. A Tuskegee Institute graduate founds his own vocational institution for blacks in Jim Crow Mississippi and manages to survive and sometimes thrive in arguably the most oppressive state in an oppressive region. And a black writer and union advocate in Detroit utilizes his relationships in organized labor to bridge racial divides. A graceful writer and natural storyteller, Jones draws meaning from these six tableaux, maintaining the thread of her argument without hammering away at it. She brings the story up to the present by revealing the ways in which the election of Barack Obama has hardly served to mask the ways in which the racial myth has done real harm. From the "dreadful deceit" of race comes a masterful book about its history.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.