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

Jacqueline Jones (Author)
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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 colorare 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

Basic Books
Publish Date
June 02, 2015
5.4 X 1.3 X 8.2 inches | 0.9 pounds
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About the Author

Jacqueline Jones holds the Ellen C. Temple Chair in Women's History and the Mastin Gentry White Professorship in Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin. Winner of the Bancroft Prize for Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, Jones lives in Austin, Texas.


2014 "Pulitzer Prize Finalist"
"Publishers Weekly," Best of 2013
Jones forcefully demonstrates how racial ideologies are used to uphold existing power relations and perpetuate injustice, denying some citizens their rightful place in civic life.
"New York Times Book Review"
These six stories, told in vivid detail, are fascinating and a pleasure to read...her book is a call to renounce the very idea of race as a dangerous misconception.
"Wall Street Journal"
Her book is a moving and painstakingly researched, at times almost novelistic, group portrait of five black men and one woman from different eras that, taken together, lays bare the ideology buttressing the notion of race and the peculiar institution it justified.... Ms. Jones s achievement is substantial.
"Chronicle of Higher Education"
[An] arresting and engrossing new book...few historians have written more powerfully or impressively about very large, and racially diverse, sections of the American working class.
"Chicago Tribune"
[A] smart, provocative new booka persuasive, deeply researched, readable argumentso intricately researched as to feel novelistic.... Though she never quite acknowledges how a biological myth becomes real cultural identity, Jones gives a lot to chew on.
ProvocativefascinatingThe strength of "Dreadful Deceit" lies in its wealth of detail and the precise picture it offers of specific places and times.
"ESPN.com," Tuesday Morning Quarterback
[This] volume may have a lasting impact on American thought.... "A Dreadful Deceit" may put into the national conversation the notion that categorizing by race is an obsolescent idea. Skin color tells nothing more about a person than eye color; there is simply one human race. That is a powerful, progressive idea.
"Charlotte Observer"
Deeply researched.
"Kirkus," starred review
A powerful exploration of an enduring myth that has haunted America over the centuries, from one of our best chroniclers of America s struggle with racial inequality.... [Jones is] a graceful writer and natural storyteller...a masterful book about its history.
"Publishers Weekly," starred review
Heartfelt.... In what is the most persuasive and satisfying feature of this authoritative book, Jones relates the stories of six black Americans across different eras spanning nearly half a millennium. These riveting tales emerge from Jones s deep knowledge of African-American history and her brilliant use of previously unexploited sources.
"Kirkus," "Best of the Year"
For readers who wonder about the impact, for better or worse, of racial framing and discourse in America, Jacqueline Jones weaves a powerful narrative argument against the construct of race.
Jones offers a provocative analysis of race and the abuse of power.
Thomas J. Sugrue, David Boies Professor of History and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, and author of "Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North"
"Jacqueline Jones is one of the most distinguished scholars on race in America and this book shows why. "A Dreadful Deceit" is both sweeping and intimate, exploring the long history of racial injustice in America and the inspiring struggle against it through beautifully drawn biographical vignettes. Powerful, eye opening, and original, it reminds us that race and power are the central themes of American history."
Edward L. Ayers, author of "In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America"
"'Race' is one of the most charged words in Americans' public vocabulary, and Jacqueline Jones dismantles it century by century, life by life. The revealing and memorable stories she tells show how the language of race became so pervasive, so deceptive, and so damaging over four centuries of American life."
Darlene C. Hine, Northwestern University, co-author of "The African American Odyssey"
A masterful work of history, biography, and searing analysis of America s race conundrum. By skillfully unraveling the fiction of race and its use to rationalize institutional oppression and exploitation over the past four hundred years, Jacqueline Jones has produced an important book of uncommon grace and grit. It is essential to understanding America s racial legacy and the true calculus of lives that have been diminished and destroyed by the dreadful deceit of race. This book is absolutely required reading.
Joe W. Trotter, Giant Eagle Professor of History and Social Justice, Carnegie Mellon University
In a variety of settings at different moments in time, this extraordinary book shows just how contingent, malleable, and resilient the notion of race has been in U.S. capitalist development. It also underscores how contemporary usage of race, shorn of its specific historical contexts, obscures more than it explains. Most important, through a meticulous reexamination of myriad permutations of race in American society, this book advances a powerful alternative narrative of U.S. history itself.