From Volume 83, Number 3 (March 2010)
From the opening pages of Ariela J. Gross’s What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, it is clear that the reader is about to embark on something special. The story begins in a Louisiana courthouse in 1857, with an enslaved woman named Alexina Morrison claiming that she is white. For her contemporaries, the assertion no doubt carried troubling implications. James White, the man who insisted Morrison was black, had papers to prove that he paid good money for her and that she was his property. But her “blue eyes and flaxen hair” told a different story, and her recent appearances at public balls in Jefferson Parish had convinced a number of residents that her graceful mannerisms and affectations were those of a white woman rather than slave. The courtroom was soon bombarded with a dizzying array of evidence for such a simple question—was she white or was she black?—with men eventually stripping her to the waist to examine her body for the tiniest signs of her true identity. Three trials later, the community still had not resolved the issue. But more importantly, from Gross’s view, this case provides an unparalleled opportunity to examine the complex and constantly shifting ground of race and its import for this nation’s history.