Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Real Americans

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Real Americans

Article excerpt

Real Americans by Oscar Villalon What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, by Ariela J. Gross. Harvard University Press, October 2008. $29.95

As A child, there were the Americans, and then there was us.

Americans weren't that plentiful in my grandmother's neighborhood. The next-door neighbor to the right, he was an American. He was an older man, and he had a big grey dog chained up in his backyard. On New Year's Eve, two of his sons got into an argument, so one of them went into a room and came back with a pistol and shot his brother dead, right there in the hallway. My grandmother's other neighbors, two doors down, used to shoot off guns all the time too. They weren't Americans. My uncle was roller-skating up and down the street once, when a car pulled up in front of the neighbor's home. Just as my uncle skated by the car, the rear window lowered, and a shotgun slid out. He screamed. The window sucked back the shotgun and the car tore off. The guys in the car weren't American, either.

This kid, Mitch, he lived down the street from my grandmother, and he was an American. We played marbles in the dirt with him all the time; sometimes he would sell us some from a margarine tub full of marbles of all sizes, including the giant Jupiter- like ones you had to hit five times in a row, sometimes ten, to claim. In their garage, his dad had a sun-bleached poster of Farrah Fawcett, the famous one of her in profile, wearing a red, one-piece bathing suit, her body bent into a V, her perfect kneecap level with her blonde head. Except in this poster, she was naked. Early on in their marriage, my mother made my father throw away all the Playboys he kept in the garage, so, up till then, I had never seen an American woman, let alone a beautiful one, naked.

There were American kids at my elementary school, though not many. But there were Americans all over TV. Mr. Kotter was American. Kojak was American. The guy from Kung Fu was or was not American; who could tell? Vin Scully was American, so were Ron Cey and Steve Garvey. But Dusty Baker was black, and we were Mexican, even if some of us looked like the Garv.

If something terrible was reported on the local news, my grandmother might say, "That poor American girl." If I got into a fight on the way back from school, I might say it was with an American boy. We spoke Spanish, made menudo, and loved USC football. We went to church, liked disco, and hated the Celtics. But we weren't Americans. After all, none of us had an inground pool.

Much wrangling - legal and intellectual - has gone into de- lineating which Americans are really Americans and which are not fully Americans: black, Indian, Latino, or Asian. How that was reckoned in our country's history is at the heart of Ariela J. Gross's book, What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. A professor of law and history at the University of Southern California, Gross examines various court transcripts and federal rulings, stretching back to the years just before the Civil War and going well into the twentieth century, to make sense of how Americans - white Americans - decided whether a person (or an entire group of people) was just like them and so should be afforded all the rights guaranteed under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Gross sup- plies a specific accounting of the contortions into which communities and the courts tangled themselves while trying to figure out who was really white or black, or something else. And she looks at the consequences of this thinking, how it divided a nation into black, "non-white" (Native Americans and immigrant groups that didn't come from Europe), and white-the people my grandmother and so many others refer to as, simply, Americans.

THE NECESSITY FOR CLASSIFICATION, Gross writes, stems from "the peculiar institution." In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, slavery had to be justified by the ideal that one group of people was intrinsically suited to be chattel and another group of people was meant to wield the whip. …

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