The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White

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"The Invisible Line" shines light on one of the most important, but too often hidden, aspects of American history and culture. Sharfstein's narrative of three families negotiating America's punishing racial terrain is a must read for all who are interested in the construction of race in the United States."
—Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello

In America, race is a riddle. The stories we tell about our past have calcified into the ...

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The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

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"The Invisible Line" shines light on one of the most important, but too often hidden, aspects of American history and culture. Sharfstein's narrative of three families negotiating America's punishing racial terrain is a must read for all who are interested in the construction of race in the United States."
—Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello

In America, race is a riddle. The stories we tell about our past have calcified into the fiction that we are neatly divided into black or white. It is only with the widespread availability of DNA testing and the boom in genealogical research that the frequency with which individuals and entire families crossed the color line has become clear.

In this sweeping history, Daniel J. Sharfstein unravels the stories of three families who represent the complexity of race in America and force us to rethink our basic assumptions about who we are. The Gibsons were wealthy landowners in the South Carolina backcountry who became white in the 1760s, ascending to the heights of the Southern elite and ultimately to the U.S. Senate. The Spencers were hardscrabble farmers in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, joining an isolated Appalachian community in the 1840s and for the better part of a century hovering on the line between white and black. The Walls were fixtures of the rising black middle class in post-Civil War Washington, D.C., only to give up everything they had fought for to become white at the dawn of the twentieth century. Together, their interwoven and intersecting stories uncover a forgotten America in which the rules of race were something to be believed but not necessarily obeyed.

Defining their identities first as people of color and later as whites, these families provide a lens for understanding how people thought about and experienced race and how these ideas and experiences evolved-how the very meaning of black and white changed-over time. Cutting through centuries of myth, amnesia, and poisonous racial politics, The Invisible Line will change the way we talk about race, racism, and civil rights.

Winner of the 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Library Journal
Sharfstein (law, Vanderbilt Univ.) presents the saga of three families from the American South who demonstrated, in their quest for acceptance and success, the mutability of the social construct of race. The Gibsons, originally landowners from South Carolina, attained recognition as whites in the 1760s; the Spencers, Kentucky subsistence farmers, alternated between the designations of white and black; and the Walls, part of the challenged black middle class in Washington, DC, chose to pass the early 20th century as largely anonymous whites. Using archival and published records, the author details the experiences and social climates of family members. Readers realize how presumably millions of people may have similarly crossed the often permeable color line, fostering a complex, dynamic social migration that sometimes accompanied geographic movement. Sharfstein asserts that race in America involves stories of accommodation and assimilation by those of African descent, similar to European immigrants. VERDICT This annotated book, enhanced by its almost lyrical prose, explores questions of elective identity, usually based on wealth, behavior, and reputation, rather than color, as well as the often tumultuous events that led to historical and personal compromises. American social history scholars, genealogists, and general readers who wish to learn through vivid case studies will be interested. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/10.]—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594202827
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/17/2011
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (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 ix

Family Trees xii

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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