Daniel Brook journeys to nineteenth-century New Orleans and Charleston and introduces us to cosmopolitan residents who elude the racial categories the rest of America takes for granted. During Reconstruction, a movement arises as mixed-race elites make common cause with the formerly enslaved and allies at the fringes of whiteness in a bid to achieve political and social equality for all.
With deft descriptions of particular families, the author then shows how the abolishment of slavery ended that world, as 'freedom' led to a binary realm of black or white, with no middle ground ... This poignant and powerful book shows us that decisions and laws surrounding racial identity and interest were deliberate. Knowing that matters in thinking about race today.
Brook zooms in on idiosyncrasies. Most mixed-race free men in antebellum Charleston were blind to the ills of slavery, and Creoles of color in New Orleans found even elite professions very much in reach, with some amassing great wealth. These aren't particularly new insights, to be sure, but reading about two Southern cities as a challenge to the tidy notion that the South wasn't ready for civil rights is refreshing ... This is valuable history. However, if it's often unclear what purpose Brook is writing toward, it's because the complications of biracial and mixed-race populations seem more to bookend The Accident of Color than provide a throughline for it ... In a sense, the idiosyncrasies that make Charleston and New Orleans seemingly important test cases for Brook also effectively render them far less anomalous once this alliance was formed ... Brook rarely talks about wage labor of any kind, focusing instead on schools, streetcars and legislatures ... Brook has written a book that goes a long way toward injecting thoughtfulness into popular notions of the history of race and racism in America, but he also doesn't go far enough. After all, the story of the social construction of race cannot really be told without understanding the motivations — both racial and nonracial — that undergird it.