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 moved to assert their rights, the black-white binary that ruled the rest of the nation began to intrude. During Reconstruction, a movement arose as mixed-race elites made 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.
Daniel Brook is a journalist and author whose writing has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The Nation. His last book, A History of Future Cities, was longlisted for the Lionel Gelber Prize and selected as one of the ten best books of the year by The Washington Post. Brook’s research and writing have been supported by fellowships from institutions including the Library of Congress and Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South. Born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, and educated at Yale, Brook lives in New Orleans.
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