Beyond how blood functions in the body, I am interested in how it weighs on the human mind, and how it influences our perception of who we are, to whom we belong, and how we experience our own humanity.Lawrence Hill’s Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life is the kind of non-fiction I’m powerless to resist: a smart and engaging mixture of science and cultural history that encouraged me to think more deeply about something I thought I already knew about. Over the course of five chapters, Hill writes about blood in culture and in history; about blood sports; about our understanding of “blood purity”; about blood and racial identity; and about the role of blood as a symbol in different traditions and ceremonies. The most interesting thing of all, though, is that all of these angles share a common theme: they challenge the assumptions about what it means to be human that are revealed by the ways we imagine, conceive of, and assign meaning to the idea of blood. As Hill puts it,
Blood filters into our consciousness in ways that surpass any other bodily fluid or any bone or tissue. It has become such a powerful metaphor for personality that we have forgotten that it is an idea — not a reality. It helps us imagine ourselves. But perhaps it helps us too much. We have bought the metaphor so fully that we have come to believe it to be fundamentally true.I particularly liked the chapter where Hill delves into the history of racial blood segregation and talks about Bernard Lown, the man who boycotted it by deliberately mixing up the labels in blood bags during WW2. The details of Lown’s story are fascinating, and provide a good example of how unquestioned social assumptions make their way into scientific practice despite a complete lack of evidence to support them.
Although the idea that there is an essential difference between white and black blood has fortunately been successfully challenged in both medicine and the popular imagination, there’s no shortage of contemporary examples of similar assumptions at work. For example, Hill spares no criticism to the laws surrounding gay men becoming blood donors and the ideas that underpin them:
In the UK, you cannot donate blood if you are a man who has had sex with another man in the last 12 months. This, ostensibly, is to prevent the HIV virus to enter the blood supply. However, each blood donation is tested for HIV, hepatitis C, and other viruses. There is a window of time — approximately two weeks — in which a donor might have acquired a virus, without that same virus showing up in a blood test. This is given as a reason for excluding donations from men who have had sex with men, even though heterosexual donors may also provide blood-carrying viruses that will not necessarily show up in tests. [Emphasis mine.]A blanket ban on donations from sexually active gay men is inexplicable, scientifically unjustifiable, and extremely revealing of dominant assumptions and prejudices.
To refuse to allow blood donations from sexually active gay men has several negative consequences. It perpetuates stereotypes against homosexuality and robs the blood supply of vital donations. It runs the risk of discouraging heterosexuals who are sympathetic to gays from donating. It creates a system in which people who are desperate to donate might lie about their sexual orientation.
Hill also explores “how governments, courts and social groups have navigated through disagreements on matters of black, white, Asian, indigenous and national identity”, often by resorting to old-fashioned ideas about blood purity and then shifting the goalposts when it’s economically convenient. Hill’s incisive writing put me in mind of Thomas King, who also does a great job of explaining why linking cultural identity exclusively to blood is not in the best interest of marginalised groups. I found the following point especially illuminating:
Over the course of history in the United States and Canada, 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.Arbitrary standards of ‘purity’ were therefore historically used to divorce people from their heritage through restrictive and harmful legislation when this proved an economic burden rather than a source of profit — and these standards impact how we think of racial identity to this day.
It has been in the economic interest of government agencies to expand the definition of black identity in order to maximize the economic benefits associated with slave labour, but it was not considered such a valuable idea to define all people with Aboriginal identity as ‘Indians’, due to the costs associated with providing serviced to Aboriginal people or recognising their land rights.
Equally interesting was the contrast between the mainly North-American “one-drop” model of racial identity and a South American model where it was possible to ‘return’ to whiteness through a narrow and very specifically defined path of ancestry. Both are of course artificial, arbitrary, racist, and an oversimplification of how people construct and live with their identities in reality, but it was fascinating to look at the circumstances (and, again, economic motivations) that shaped each of them.
Lawrence Hill’s perspective is informed by his own identity: he’s a Canadian man of mixed race, the son of a black father and a white mother. He repeatedly draws attention to the fact that our understanding of historical phenomena such as ‘passing’ as something that forced people to leave their ‘essential’ blackness behind is at odds with how we conceive of the ‘one drop’ rule: no one thought of that as something that forced people of mixed-race leave their ‘essential’ whiteness behind. There are, of course, social and cultural issues at stake here: for example, the African-American people who were forced to ‘pass’ to have a better chance to succeed in a racist world often had to cut ties with the communities and cultural contexts they came from, which was of course an enormous loss. Yet as Hill argues, we can acknowledge this while remaining critical of the idea that while whiteness is ‘neutral’, there’s some essential quality to ‘blackness’ that becomes dominant and all-defining in anyone with a mixed-race background. If black ancestry did become defining, it was because of the meaning that was — and is — assigned to it in a racist society.
Blood is similar to books like Beyond Human Nature, in the sense that it’s critical of essential understandings of humanity (which are still as popular as ever, with genetics replacing blood in the popular imagination). Additionally, it shows a nuanced understanding of the many factors that shape people’s identities. I’m very much looking forward to reading more of Lawrence Hill’s work.
Other bits I liked:
The war and battle metaphors we employ — influenced by the writings of Louis Pasteur in the 1800s and reinforced by U.S. President Richard Nixon, who in 1971 signed the National Cancer Act and declared a “war on cancer” — offer one way to contemplate human biology. They certainly provide us with a method to imagine the body’s efforts to deal with disease and infection. At the same time, they are at risk of leaving us with the impression that people who succumb to illness simply did not try hard enough, and that people who overcome the same illnesses are stronger, more courageous, or have more valour. It is a striking way to refer to our own bodily processes, but there you have it.(Have you written about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)
The slip side of egregious pride in one’s family blood or luck of citizenship is the sense that others are less human, less valuable, less deserving than you.
Is a person entitled to lead a country because of his or her bloodline? No. The bloodline is a figment of our imaginations. A president, prime minister or dictator’s blood does not recirculate in the veins of his or her daughter or son. It’s time to move beyond our blood-based obsession with dynasties in politics, and genius in art. Roll over, Hippocrates, and tell Galen the news.