In The Accident of Color, 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. Before the Civil War, these free, openly mixed-race urbanites enjoyed some rights of citizenship and the privileges of wealth and social status. But after Emancipation, as former slaves move to assert their rights, the black-white binary that rules the rest of the nation begins to intrude. 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.
In some areas, this coalition proved remarkably successful. Activists peacefully integrated the streetcars of Charleston and New Orleans for decades and, for a time, even the New Orleans public schools and the University of South Carolina were educating students of all backgrounds side by side. Tragically, the achievements of this movement were ultimately swept away by a violent political backlash and expunged from the history books, culminating in the Jim Crow laws that would legalize segregation for a half century and usher in the binary racial regime that rules us to this day.
The Accident of Color revisits a crucial inflection point in American history. By returning to the birth of our nation's singularly narrow racial system, which was forged in the crucible of opposition to civil rights, Brook illuminates the origins of the racial lies we live by.
- ISBN-13: 9780393247442
- ISBN-10: 0393247449
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- Publish Date: June 2019
- Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.35 pounds
- Page Count: 336
The Accident of Color
Daniel Brook’s The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction is fast-paced and intriguing, revelatory and provocative. Drawing deeply on archival materials, Brook brings to life the complex notions of race that developed in the years leading up to the Civil War and the ways that various forces diminished such complexity during Reconstruction, reducing race to the restrictive binary—individuals are either black or white—that dominates conversations about and practices surrounding race in America today.
Focusing primarily on Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, Brook reveals that multiracial groups—Creoles of color in New Orleans and Browns in Charleston—worked to promote the liberty and equality promised to all men in the Declaration of Independence. For example, Creoles educated their children in private academies in New Orleans. Both in Charleston and New Orleans, multiracial people were prosperous landlords and hairstylists and business owners. These free people of color sometimes owned slaves, but following the Emancipation Proclamation, multiracial individuals often formed alliances with freedmen to work against white politicians’ and landowners’ attempts to legislate segregation based on race.
Along the way, we meet characters such as Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard of New Orleans and Francis Lewis Cardozo of Charleston, each of whom led groups of freedmen and free men of color and lobbied to be subject to the same laws that govern white men. By the end of Reconstruction, however, both states had established Jim Crow laws that rigidly defined race as either black or white, with black people determined as those with just one drop of African or Caribbean blood in their ancestry.
Brook’s illuminating and lively study illustrates that, given the diverse heritage of America, it was never possible for races to be separate. He concludes that the racial binary is a social construct and that, in truth, American history is Creole history.