Book Review: Discovering Identity in Civil Procedure – Article by Anthony V. Alfieri

From Volume 83, Number 3 (March 2010)
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This Review explores the story of Floride Norelus—an undocumented Haitian immigrant—her civil rights lawyers, and the judges who did not believe them. The backdrop for Norelus’s story comes out of Ariela J. Gross’s new book, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. In What Blood Won’t Tell, Gross, an elegant historian and eloquent storyteller, enlarges an already distinguished body of work on slavery, race, and antebellum trials to investigate the changing meaning of identity in law and litigation. Bridging the study of law and culture, she constructs, or rather reconstructs, identity—both race and gender—from the artifacts of local knowledge expressed in social performance and scientific expertise. Gross points to two “key moments” in American history when racial and gender identity were “particularly fraught”—initially, when “racial identity trials shifted from more routine adjudications of ancestry to intense contests about science and performance,” and subsequently, when jingoist and nativist movements ignited “efforts to define the boundaries of citizenship racially.” During these moments, she notes, the forum for the “determination of racial identity” moved to the local courthouse, “a key arena throughout the nineteenth century for struggles over identity.” At local courthouses, Gross explains, trials of racial and gender identity “reverberated through American culture.” Indeed, for Gross and others, the “cultural arena” of the courthouse and the legal case at stake “could fix the identity of an individual or an entire national group with a conclusiveness that was hard to overturn.”


 

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