Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
What Blood Won’t Tell

What Blood Won’t Tell

A History of Race on Trial in America

Ariela J. Gross

ISBN 9780674047983

Publication date: 05/01/2010

Is race something we know when we see it? In 1857, Alexina Morrison, a slave in Louisiana, ran away from her master and surrendered herself to the parish jail for protection. Blue-eyed and blond, Morrison successfully convinced white society that she was one of them. When she sued for her freedom, witnesses assured the jury that she was white, and that they would have known if she had a drop of African blood. Morrison’s court trial—and many others over the last 150 years—involved high stakes: freedom, property, and civil rights. And they all turned on the question of racial identity.

Over the past two centuries, individuals and groups (among them Mexican Americans, Indians, Asian immigrants, and Melungeons) have fought to establish their whiteness in order to lay claim to full citizenship in local courtrooms, administrative and legislative hearings, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Morrison’s case, these trials have often turned less on legal definitions of race as percentages of blood or ancestry than on the way people presented themselves to society and demonstrated their moral and civic character.

Unearthing the legal history of racial identity, Ariela Gross’s book examines the paradoxical and often circular relationship of race and the perceived capacity for citizenship in American society. This book reminds us that the imaginary connection between racial identity and fitness for citizenship remains potent today and continues to impede racial justice and equality.

Praise

  • What Blood Won't Tell brings us at long last a brilliant analysis of the changing meanings of race in American law from the colonial era to the present. It will be indispensable for any informed discussions of a subject that lies at the very core of both American history and identity.

    —David Brion Davis, author of Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

Awards

  • 2009, Winner of the Best Book Award in Race, Ethnicity, and Politics
  • 2009, Joint winner of the James Willard Hurst Prize
  • 2009, Joint winner of the Lillian Smith Book Awards

Author

  • Ariela J. Gross is John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History, University of Southern California.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

Recommendations