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LECTURE

V
Secrets

Our blood contains many secrets. These secrets may have to do with an identity -- racial, religious, or other -- that we have chosen to shed, hide, or alter. They may have to do with crimes we have committed. Children we have fathered, or mothered. Blood also has the potential to yield up secrets -- and even resolve disputes -- about our most distant ancestry.

Blood is so red, and it stains with such unrelenting diligence -- as liquid manifestation, and as enduring metaphor -- that when we spill it criminally, we are forever stained. Maybe our blood knows this. Maybe the nature, colour, and undeniability of our blood serves to help preserve mankind.

Consider the emotional torture of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. In one of the most pointed meditations on blood in western literature, Macbeth’s husband muses that an entire ocean couldn’t rinse clean his bloody hands after he and Lady Macbeth conspired to murder King Duncan.

In this scene from the 2010 BBC adaptation of Macbeth, Patrick Stewart, in the title role, meditates on his "hangman's hands" that murdered King Duncan.

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In this scene from an amateur production of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth (Juliet Weigand) is maddened by thoughts of the murders of Duncan, Lady Macduff and Banquo, and tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands.

Today’s criminals not only have to contend with their conscience (we imagine) but they must also deal with the new science of forensic examination. Thanks to modern science, we can tell if a bloodstain comes from a human or an animal. We can tell the blood type of the person who left the stain. The criminal may have washed clean the crime scene, but investigators can find traces of blood that are unapparent to the naked eye or are out of sight.

Background photo: Crime scene reconstructionist Rod Englert demonstrates types of blood spatter evidence in a 2011 murder trial.

“Passing”

Blood can contain many secrets. Some may never be revealed, and others may be exposed after lying dormant for decades or centuries. Given the endless obsession with separating and treating unequally people of artificially defined racial (or blood) groups, it is no wonder that thousands of individuals have attempted to “pass” into safer, unpersecuted groups.

One of the emotional problems related to passing is that, to succeed, you must eradicate your past and convince all people who matter of the “truth” of your new, fictional identity. In the case of surviving the Holocaust, escaping slavery, or avoiding the ravages and restricted possibilities associated with racial hatred and racial segregation, the act of passing is serious business. You have to succeed. If you are caught, the consequences may be severe.

Background photo: Belle da Costa Greene, seen in this Library of Congress image, was librarian to financier J.P. Morgan. Her parents were black, but Belle passed for white and added "da Costa" to her name to sound exotic. She destroyed her personal documents before death to keep her secret.
Nazi Officers Wife
Cover of The Nazi Officer's Wife, by Edith Hahn Beer (HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.)

It is no wonder that during the Holocaust, some Jews attempted — and even succeeded — to escape extermination by adopting Christian identities. In 1999, Edith Hahn Beer published her memoir The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust. In the memoir, Hahn Beer recounted how she grew up in a nonobservant Jewish family in Austria but passed for a Christian to avoid being killed during the Holocaust. She married a Nazi party member named Werner Vetter, who became a wartime officer.

Black Like Me
U.K. cover of Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin (Panther Books, 1964.)

A famously unusual case of passing is found in the story of the Texan journalist and photographer John Howard Griffin, who decided to attempt to document the real meaning of being black in America in 1959. Griffin, who was white, consulted a physician and underwent a series of treatments by means of drugs, sunlamps, and skin creams to make his skin look brown. He shaved his head, so that his straight hair would not given him away. And he began to travel by bus and hitchhiking into some of the most racist zones of the Unites States. His 1961 book, Black Like Me, became a bestseller and is still remembered a half century later.

Did John Howard Griffin truly become a black man? Most observers today would probably agree that Griffin was not black, but only posing as black. If he had lived out the entirety of his life as a black man, would he then have been legitimately black? I would have to say yes. He would have been legitimately black, because the world would have seen him so.

Tomorrow, perhaps things will change. But today, race has nothing to do with blood, and everything to do with what people will believe.

DNA tests have shattered a myth that persevered despite all common knowledge to the contrary: that blacks were black, and whites were white, and that a person could absolutely not be both.

To have admitted such a thing, historically, would have been to do much more than to admit the awful truth that white slave masters took black slave women into their beds. It would have reduced to rubble the foundations of an economy and society based on the subjugation of one people by another. For how could one subjugate the other, if they were truly the same?

One of the most famous examples, which has altered the way many historians have framed U.S. history, is that of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Hemings has long been described as the slave mistress and mother of many children fathered by Jefferson, who was the key author of the Declaration of Independence and the third American president, serving in office from 1801 to 1809.

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In 1802 journalist James Thomson Callender set off a political firestorm with an article in the Richmond Recorder titled “The President, Again” accusing Jefferson of keeping a slave as a “concubine” and fathering a child with her.

There is nothing but our own biases blocking the way to a path that allows us to enjoy blood as a metaphor for our distinctiveness and group belonging, without using it as an excuse to pillory the most convenient scapegoat. Blood, I hope, will eventually unite us.

Blood fills our imaginations just as fully as it fills our veins.