A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America

A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America

by Jacqueline Jones


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In 1656, a Maryland planter tortured and killed an enslaved man named Antonio, an Angolan who refused to work in the fields. Three hundred years later, Simon P. Owens battled soul-deadening technologies as well as the fiction of “race” that divided him from his co-workers in a Detroit auto-assembly plant. Separated by time and space, Antonio and Owens nevertheless shared a distinct kind of political vulnerability; they lacked rights and opportunities in societies that accorded marked privileges to people labeled “white.”

An American creation myth posits that these two black men were the victims of “racial” discrimination, a primal prejudice that the United States has haltingly but gradually repudiated over the course of many generations. In A Dreadful Deceit, award-winning historian Jacqueline Jones traces the lives of Antonio, Owens, and four other African Americans to illustrate the strange history of “race” in America. In truth, Jones shows, race does not exist, and the very factors that we think of as determining it— a person’s heritage or skin color—are mere pretexts for the brutalization of powerless people by the powerful. Jones shows that for decades, southern planters did not even bother to justify slavery by invoking the concept of race; only in the late eighteenth century did whites begin to rationalize the exploitation and marginalization of blacks through notions of “racial” difference. Indeed, race amounted to a political strategy calculated to defend overt forms of discrimination, as revealed in the stories of Boston King, a fugitive in Revolutionary South Carolina; Elleanor Eldridge, a savvy but ill-starred businesswoman in antebellum Providence, Rhode Island; Richard W. White, a Union veteran and Republican politician in post-Civil War Savannah; and William Holtzclaw, founder of an industrial school for blacks in Mississippi, where many whites opposed black schooling of any kind. These stories expose the fluid, contingent, and contradictory idea of race, and the disastrous effects it has had, both in the past and in our own supposedly post-racial society.

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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465055678
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 06/02/2015
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Jacqueline Jones is the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and the Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin. Winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Ford Fellowship, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, she has previously taught at Brandeis, Brown, and Wellesley. She is the author of seven previous books, including Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and which won the Bancroft Prize for American History, the Philip Taft Award in Labor History, the Brown Memorial Publication Prize awarded by the Association of Black Women Historians, the Julia Spruill Prize awarded by the Southern Association for Women Historians, and the Gustavus Myers Center Prize for Best Book on Racial Intolerance. Her book Saving Savannah received the Malcolm Bell, Jr. and Muriel Barrow Bell Award for Best Book in Georgia History, was a finalist for the Frederick Douglass Award, and received an Honorable Mention for the Lincoln Prize; another, The Dispossessed, was a finalist for the Lillian Smith Award from the Southern Regional Council. Jones is the Vice-President of the Professional Division of the American Historical Association and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of American Historians, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Authors’ Guild, the PEN American Center, and the American Antiquarian Society. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Table of Contents

One. Antonio: A Killing in Early Colonial Maryland

Two. Boston King: Self-Interested Patriotism in Revolutionary-Era South Carolina

Three. Elleanor Eldridge: “Complexional Hindrance” in Antebellum Rhode Island

Four. Richard W. White: “Racial” Politics in Post-Civil-War Savannah

Five. William H. Holtzclaw: The “Black Man’s Burden” in the Heart of Mississippi

Six. Simon P. Owens: A Detroit Wildcatter at the Point of Production

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