Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity, and: A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (review)
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Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity. Edited by Bruce Baum and Duchess Harris. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. x, 330. Cloth, $84.95; Paper, $23.95.)
A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. By Stephen G. Hall. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 334. Cloth, $65.00; Paper, $22.95.)

The two books under review share an interest in the crucial role of race in American history. Baum and Harris's edited collection traces racial conflict and ideologies from the early national period to the election of Obama; Hall provides an account of nineteenth-century African American historians' efforts to make sense of these conflicts and ideologies from ancient times to their present moment. Both books offer important insights on race and American history, though Baum and Harris's volume would have profited from a more nuanced approach to racial conflict and to ideologies of race itself.

The fourteen essays in Racially Writing the Republic (five of which focus on the pre-1865 period) explore what the editors call "the debasing role of 'race' and racism in the development of American political thought and national identity" (2). For Baum and Harris, American political history can be understood in terms of a conflict between "canonical thinkers" (4), who are invariably "white, and generally racist" (5), and the "race rebels" (4), or "brave souls" (2), invariably nonwhite, who [End Page 501] resist white racism and inspire us, as George Lipsitz puts it in his Afterword, to address our own challenge of "Racially Righting the Republic" (281). There is of course considerable truth to the editors' vision. Slavery and freedom were intertwined in the minds of Jefferson and other founders, and as essays in this collection clearly show, racism can be found even among those who espouse democratic beliefs. But in the overall volume, there are relatively few considerations of conflict and division within particular individuals, white or black, and scant consideration of the fluidity of race. Historical continuity rather than contingency guides the overall collection. Harris's and Baum's own contribution, "Jefferson's Legacies: Racial Intimacies and American Identity," adds little to the recent work of Annette Gordon-Reed on Jefferson and Hemings, and insists instead on the trajectory running from Jefferson to Strom Thurmond. Harris and Baum conclude their essay by calling on white America to offer reparations to black America, but overlook how notions of "white" and "black" become destabilized through interracial sexuality. Moreover, as their volume makes clear, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos have also experienced racial injustice.

Although there is much to learn from all of the essays, some are more tendentious than others. Catherine Holland argues that "Lincoln's turn to Jefferson also entailed an embrace of Jefferson's white nationalism" (99). Without taking account of diachronic unfolding (and the possibility of change), Holland maintains that even when Lincoln appeared to imagine possibilities for blacks in the United States, he "embodied an American liberalism that found coherence only through the displacement of racial equality" (100). In this volume, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Samuel Gompers, whose anti-Chinese racism is discussed by Gwendolyn Mink (in an essay drawn from her 1986 Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development), are basically all of a piece. The "race rebels" are similarly flattened in some essays, most of which deal with post-Civil war America figures, such as Sara Winnemuca, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells Barnettt, and Carlos Bulosan. Jerry Thompson provides an interesting biographical sketch of the Mexican rebel Juan Nepomuceno Cortina (1824–1894), who resorted to violence to challenge U.S. imperial rule along the Rio Grande, though I'm not fully convinced that the illiterate Cortina imagined his actions as an attack on "a racist system" (86). The best essays in Racially Writing the Republic are richly historicized and contextualized. John Kuo Wei Tchen's account of George Washington's "patrician Orientalism" (38) provides an interesting [End Page 502] perspective on modes of acquiring social distinction in the late eighteenth century. Laura Janara's essay on...