Lawrence Hill on the power of blood

An exclusive excerpt from this year's Massey Lectures by the author of 'The Book of Negroes'

Photograph by Cole Garside

Bleeding hearts and cold-blooded killers; bloodlines, blood ties and red-handed thieves. Blood will out: There is no other presence in our bodies that matters more to us, that is so rich a source of metaphor, concept and meaning. Blood has always obsessed thinkers, lawmakers and artists. Just ask Lawrence Hill. The distinguished writer has the physical scars—traces of a 41-stitch childhood encounter with a plate glass door—and the books to prove it. Best known for his novels Any Known Blood and The Book of Negroes, and the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada—all in their ways explorations of the themes of blood and belonging—Hill has had a lifelong fascination with what flows in our veins.

It’s no surprise then to learn of Hill’s topic for the 2013 Massey Lectures, which will be delivered across the country, broadcast on CBC and collected in a book entitled Blood: The Stuff of Life. “You never write a book without some personal connection,” says Hill, 56, in an interview. “I’m well acquainted with my own blood. I’ve spilled it, I monitor it many times a day for my diabetes, and I’ve been obsessed with blood and race since I was a child. And it’s not just me—the sight of it arrests anyone. How often do we see something that we think is blood, and we’re wrong? Its vivid redness is powerfully significant.”Over five linked lectures/chapters Hill discusses our evolving notions about blood’s physical properties and functions, including the ways “our own blood betrays us; how blood language is used to describe concepts of truth, honesty and morality; how when blood is spilled, “we demand—in literature and in reality—a downstream effect, consequences which satisfy us morally”; how blood still tells some of us “what we are supposed to do, to whom we belong, and the rights that we enjoy or are denied”; how the exercise of power—to make a revolution stick or to demonize an entire minority group—always “depends on bloodshed”; and how blood offers up our deepest secrets and revelations, truths that “can indict us in a court of law or the court of family judgment.” These are ancient issues that, Hill argues, may have a pulse as strong or, at times, stronger than ever in contemporary society. Who now can think of blood purity without Lance Armstrong coming to mind? “If he had murdered five people he would have attracted less attention. We equate blood with honesty and integrity—cheat with it and you are the worst.” Nor, in the era of the Bush and (perhaps) Clinton dynasties, the worldwide celebration of the birth of Prince George, and Justin Trudeau’s Liberal leadership, is “the blueblood theory of rule” dead—even those who dismiss any notion of a blood right to power will say, unselfconsciously, of the younger Trudeau, that he has “politics in his blood.”

One issue Hill takes particular aim at is the current set of rules for blood donation in Canada, recently “liberalized” so that gay men may now donate—after decades of being banned entirely—if they have been celibate for five years. “Who takes that seriously?” Hill exclaims. The new dispensation is just as “wrong, illogical and fear-based” as the old. “There can be no serious defence of that policy—it in no way enhances safety, since promiscuous heterosexuals who don’t practise safe sex are still eligible.”

And he notes also that two of the most popular young adult literary series ever penned are both recent and blood obsessed. Stephenie Myers’s Twilight books are naturally blood-soaked, considering they are populated with vampires; less attention is usually paid to the fact that the human heroine has very special blood, of an ecstasy-inducing attractiveness that makes all the undead she encounters want to devour her. “J.K. Rowling was brilliant in focusing Harry Potter on notions of blood purity,” Hill adds. “She knew children would immediately identify” with such an arbitrary and abrupt in/out marker.

Rowling’s theme, of course, points to the heart of Hill’s personal concerns: blood and racial identity, “notions I want to overturn.” The old American laws that determined the blood quantum—the percentage of ancestry—that made an individual “black,” and thereby subject to slavery or segregation (the usual answer was any percentage at all) may be gone, but their ideas remain potent. As late as 2003 the Ontario government vigorously argued before the Supreme Court of Canada that a father and son arrested for deer hunting out of season had no treaty right to do so because the father was only 1/64th Metis and the son 1/128th.

We can’t seem to escape the ancient notions, says Hill in his elegantly argued lectures. Blood is the metaphor that got away on us: so seductively attractive, so seemingly true but actually dangerous, is the blood and identity idea that “it has passed from metaphor to reality.” Real blood, the stuff of lives, sustains and saves us; metaphorical blood has too often divided and even killed us.

Exclusive Excerpt:

We continue to embrace subtle means to define people by dint of their blood purity, or by degrees of mixture. It still influences the way we talk when we describe our neighbour as half black and half white, or our co-worker as one-quarter Irish, one-quarter Japanese, and one-half Nigerian. How quaint. How exotic. How ludicrous. Human identity cannot be arithmetically quantified. You cannot break down blood into discrete racial parts. Each time we try to do it, we reveal the very looniest parts of our hearts and minds. And we open the door to mistreatment and injustice.

There are more terms for people of African ancestry, and more terms for people of supposedly mixed blood, than could fill a 300-page book. Mulatto is one of the most common ones, and it still makes its appearance from time to time these days. It is meant to refer to a person who has one black and one white parent, and is offensive to many because it derives from the Spanish word for the offspring of a horse and a donkey. There is quadroon (one-quarter “black blood”) and octoroon (one-eighth), and from there the possibilities expand into ludicrous directions. On my shelf at home is one of the most bizarre books I have ever seen, called The Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology. It is by Thomas M. Stephens, and was published by the University Press of Florida. It has three parts, for terms that are Spanish-American, Brazilian-Portuguese, or French-American and American French-Creole. It runs to 863 pages. One Creole term is lèt kayé, which means “person who is the colour of curdled milk.” Another is the Spanish-American term calpamulato, which can have various meanings, one of which is “offspring of a mulatto and an Indian; 25 per cent white, 50 per cent Indian, 25 per cent black.”

The dictionary shows that as far as people of African descent are concerned, racial identity derives from the idea of blood. In Canada and the United States, the concept of “hypodescent” (also known as the one-drop rule) suggests that a person with any drop of “black blood” would be considered black and so defined for the purposes of slavery, segregation and other forms of social oppression. Those who would profit from an economy based on the exploitation of slave labour clearly had an interest in defining black people with as wide a net as possible. Over the course of history in Canada and the U.S., people with both black and white ancestry were not excused from the burdens of slavery, segregation, or racial discrimination if they were perceived to have some white blood. In their cases, white blood didn’t exist. It didn’t matter. It had been polluted. They were judged to be black, and were treated as such, because it was black blood that counted.

U.S. President Barack Obama is of black and white ancestry, but can you imagine the ridicule that he would have endured, during any part of his upbringing in the United States, if he had told people that he was white? It would have been a social impossibility. People would have laughed in his face. Black, however, was acceptable. To call himself a black man followed the rule of hypodescent, the one-drop rule, so black it was that Obama had to become.

For nearly four centuries in the United States and Canada, people of African descent have been considered black if they have the very slightest trace of African ancestry. This was accepted by perpetrators of slavery and segregation, and in many ways it became internalized by black people, too, who have often been proud and vocal about asserting their identity, even in cases of minimal African ancestry. To deny it, or so the thinking has gone, has been to sell out and to deny a fundamental truth. Moving forward, however, with DNA tests telling blacks that they have some white ancestry (confirming what everybody already knows) and surprising whites with revelations of black ancestry (outing a truth that many already suspect), it may become increasingly impossible—and perhaps it should—to make definitive declarations of race based on blood identity. Genetic testing—which doesn’t need blood, by the way, but a mere cheek swab—reveals ancestries either so hidden or so distant that they have become invisible to the human eye. Perhaps in the end genetics will move us beyond blood and race.

If we were not so wedded to the arcane notions of blood, we would be freer to celebrate our various, complex and divergent identities relating to family and notions of talent and ability, citizenship and race. We would be more whole, self-accepting people, and less judgmental of others. In this day and age, who among us is not all mixed up?

Arithmetical calculation related to the makeup of blood for the purposes of fixing a person’s family, level of talent, nationality, or race is fundamentally demeaning. It boils our humanity down to numbers. It breaks us down into parts, often seizing upon one such part and negating others in order to construct a formal (and artificial) identity. It prevents us from recognizing that it is impossible for us to be half of one thing and half of another, and that it is absurd to suggest that one can be all of one thing (such as black) and none of another (white).

Blood flows efficiently in our arteries and veins, feeding oxygen to our muscles, fighting infection, and regulating body temperature. The magic of blood has the potential to turn toxic, however, when it becomes a metaphor for racial, ethnic, or family identity.

There is no sin in being proud of your heritage and your ancestors. Do you see yourself as African-American? African-Canadian? Jamaican? Korean? Metis? Irish? Sri Lankan? Japanese? Do you remember what your great-grandparents did, and feel that it is important to continue to uphold their values? Do you feel specific, intimate, family-based connections to certain groups of people? It can be a beautiful thing to draw strength and purpose from a sense of ancestral connection.

Interviewed for CBC Radio on June 10, 2013, at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, a man named Red Bear, also known as Bernie Robinson, reminded listeners that for many years Aboriginal children were beaten in residential schools for speaking their native languages. Now, said Red Bear, who identified himself as pushing 60, many Native adults are afraid to relearn their lost indigenous languages because they fear it is too late. But, Red Bear suggested, it is never too late: “Anybody who has Aboriginal blood will pick up that language and it will become part of who they are.”

I don’t believe that the ability to learn a language is truly located in one’s platelets, plasma and red blood cells. For me, Red Bear’s statement evoked the notion of enduring and unbreakable connections to one’s heritage and culture. Let’s reject the suggestion that blood can be quantified to tell somebody that he can’t hunt, or that she can’t be allowed to live with her own family and must instead be forcefully removed to a residential school. Let’s drop the idea of what you are not allowed to be, or to do, because of who you are, but encourage each other to look for the good in our blood, and in our ancestry. We should let hatred and divisiveness spill from us as if it were bad blood, and search for more genuine and caring ways to imagine human identity and human relations.

Excerpt from the 2013 CBC Massey Lectures, Blood. Copyright © 2013 Lawrence Hill and CBC. Permission granted by House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.

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