The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

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Overview

"An astonishingly detailed rendering of the variety and complexity of racial experience in an evolving national culture."
-The New York Times Book Review

In the Obama era, as Americans confront the enduring significance of race and heritage, this multigenerational account of family secrets promises to spark debate across the country. Daniel J. Sharfstein's sweeping history moves from eighteenth-century South Carolina to twentieth-century Washington, D.C., unraveling the stories ...

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The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

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Overview

"An astonishingly detailed rendering of the variety and complexity of racial experience in an evolving national culture."
-The New York Times Book Review

In the Obama era, as Americans confront the enduring significance of race and heritage, this multigenerational account of family secrets promises to spark debate across the country. Daniel J. Sharfstein's sweeping history moves from eighteenth-century South Carolina to twentieth-century Washington, D.C., unraveling the stories of three families who represent the complexity of race in America. Identifying first as people of color and later as whites, the families provide a lens through which to examine how people thought about and experienced race and how, for them and America, the very meanings of black and white changed. The Invisible Line cuts through centuries of myth to transform the way we see ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Invisible Line offers a trilogy of remarkable tales brimming with risk taking, camouflage, irony, narrow escapes, misgivings, regret, delight, and full-scale human drama. Excellent histories have been published about the Great Migration of twentieth-century African Americans from the rural South to the urban North, but, until now, no authoritative and cumulative work has looked at this preceding and overlapping social movement of race changing. This book overthrows nearly everything Americans thought they knew about race."
-Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and There Is No Me Without You

"An original and often startling look at the vagaries of the 'color line.' Sharfstein shows definitively that it was not a doctrinaire belief in racial purity that gave the South stability but rather a fluid understanding by its people and its institutions of racial difference and its multiple permutations."
-Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

"Sharfstein brings his original research alive with a novelist's eye for vivid detail and narrative. A groundbreaking work that will stir reflection and debate."
-Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club

"With lively prose and remarkable research, Sharfstein creates a fresh and stirring epic of American life. He weaves the vexing problem of race into the very fabric of national life and shows just how unsteady and complicated racial identity can be."
-Martha A. Sandweiss, author of Passing Strange

"A tremendous contribution to our understanding of the role of race in American history . . . One of those rare books that make history come alive."."
-Lawrence M. Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor, Stanford Law School; author of A History of American Law

"Deeply intertwined in the American story of race are these stories of camouflaged families and their passages across the color line. Daniel Sharfstein disentangles them with eloquence and compassion."
-David K. Shipler, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Country of Strangers

"A beautifully written book that reveals not only how the law has shaped American ideas about race but also how the complexity of human experience has pushed against the rigid boundaries of our legal categories."
-Mark S. Weiner, professor of law, Rutgers-Newark School of Law; author of Black Trials

"Brilliant . . . a true American story. Its consequences pervade the American past and shadow its future."
-Ira Berlin, professor of history at the University of Maryland, author of The Making African America

"A must-read for all serious students of the race line in American life, written with care, verve, sophistication, and enormous learning."
—Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University

"A powerful indictment of one of America's most enduring myths. Written with a novelist's eye for fascinating characters and rich sense of place and a scholar's precision and panoramic perspective, The Invisible Line makes visible the shifting artificial nature of the "color line" and its dire, life-changing consequences. Read this book if you want to understand the roots of our knotted racial history. Read this book if you hope to untangle it."
—Bliss Broyard, author of One Drop

Raymond Arsenault
In an illuminating and aptly titled book, The Invisible Line, Daniel J. Sharfstein demonstrates that African-Americans of mixed ancestry have been crossing the boundaries of color and racial identity since the early colonial era…Sharfstein documents this persistent racial fluidity by painstakingly reconstructing the history of three families. In a dizzying array of alternating chapters, he presents the personal and racial stories of the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls. The result is an astonishingly detailed rendering of the variety and complexity of racial experience in an evolving national culture moving from slavery to segregation to civil rights.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
The story of the wealthy Gibsons of Colonial South Carolina, the farming Spencers of 19th-century Kentucky, and the middle-class Walls of post-Civil War Washington, DC, and each family's shifting self-identity from black to white.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143120636
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/31/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 574,331
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel J. Sharfstein is an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University. Sharfstein graduated from Yale Law School and from Harvard College, summa cum laude in history and literature and Afro-American Studies. He has been awarded fellowships in legal history from Harvard, New York University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Sharfstein has written for the Yale Law Journal, The New York Times, The Economist, and The Washington Post.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Family Trees xiv

Introduction: The House Behind the Cedars 1

1 GIBSON: Mars Bluff, South Carolina, 1768 13

2 WALL: Rockingham, North Carolina, 1838 27

3 SPENCER: Clay County, Kentucky, 1848 39

4 GIBSON: New Haven, Connecticut, 1850-55 53

5 SPENCER: Jordan Gap, Johnson County, Kentucky, 1855 73

6 WALL: Oberlin, Ohio, September 1858 85

7 CIVIL WAR: Wall, Gibson, and Spencer, 1859-63 103

8 CIVIL WAR: Wall and Gibson, 1863-66 119

9 GIBSON; Mississippi, New Orleans, and New York, 1866-68 135

10 WALL: Washington, D.C. June 14, 1871 151

11 SPENCER: Jordan Gap, Johnson County, Kentucky, 1870s 169

12 GIBSON: Washington, D.C., 1878 181

13 WALL: Washington, D.C, January 21, 1880 197

14 GIBSON: Washington, D.C, New Orleans, and Hot Springs, Arkansas, 1888-92 215

15 WALL: Washington, D.C, 1890-91 229

16 SPENCER: Jordan Gap, Johnson County, Kentucky, ca. 1900 241

17 WALL: Washington, D.C, 1909 253

18 SPENCER: Home Creek, Buchanan County, Virginia, 1912 273

19 GIBSON: Paris and Chicago, 1931-33 293

20 WALL: Freeport, Long Island, 1946 307

Epilogue 321

Acknowledgments 331

Notes 337

Index 385

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Customer Reviews

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