Figurations of Race and Ethnicity
Session 4.10
2004 NEMLA Meeting
Pittsburgh, PA
05 March

Shawn Salvant
Vanderbilt University

Race in Transfusion: Mixing Blood, Un/Making Metaphor


Do not cite without permission of the author.

In the 1940s—while the horrors of Nazism were being implemented in Europe and the American Red Cross was separating black and white blood donated by soldiers fighting against Hitler's program of racial cleansing—anthropologist Ashley Montagu, in his attack on scientific racism in Race: Man's Most Dangerous Myth , assured his readers that “there are no known or demonstrable differences in the character of the blood of different peoples, except that some traits of the blood, like sickle-cell anemia and thellasemia are possessed in greater frequency by some than by others. In that sense St. Paul 's obiter dictum ‘[that God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth is literally true.'” Yet the discourse of race continues to be infused with scientific and popular discourse of blood. The belief that “blood”—the designated carrier of character since the era of the Greek humoral system—plays a role in genetic inheritance has been one of the most inveterate obstacles in the dismantling of scientific notions of racial inheritance.

What role have metaphors of racial blood and the developing technology of blood transfusion played in the shift toward understand race as a discursive rather than a scientific phenomenon? My essay examines the literary representation and racial politics of sharing blood. The sharing of blood has been used to test the limits of racial difference as race has been constructed through rhetoric blood. Published just before Karl Landsteiner's breakthrough in blood typing which would eventually make blood transfusion commonplace, Pauline Hopkins's novel Of One Blood (1901-1902) makes shared racial history and destiny akin to sharing blood through an occult transfusion. In Edna Ferber's novel Showboat (1926) Steve Baker eludes Mississippi 's miscegenation laws by pricking the finger of his mulatto lover and ingesting her blood—literalizing the metaphor of blood mixture in which the miscegenation laws were written. Similarly, Red Cross workers who labeled black and white blood separately during World War II conceded to the power of metaphors of racialized blood which had dominated the previous century of scientific, legal, and literary discourse on race. Yet as the technology of transfusion has established blood as a human common denominator, blood retains its power to stigmatize individuals and groups through blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS. In many ways, the “mixing” of blood across racial lines is as taboo and restricted as it was during the height of anxieties over “miscegenation” or “consanguinity.” My essay asks how far we have come with regard to anxieties over racial blood.