The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

by Daniel J. Sharfstein


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143120636
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/31/2012
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 577,732
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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.

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

What People are Saying About This

David K. Shipler

“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, opening a hidden chapter of history that offers new insights into the country's struggle to overcome.”--(David K. Shipler, author of A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America)

Annette Gordon-Reed

"The Invisible Line" shines light on one of the most important, but too often hidden, aspects of American history and culture; how families traveled back and forth across supposedly fixed racial categories. Deeply researched and elegantly presented, 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)

Bliss Broyard

“The Invisible Line is a powerful indictment of one of America’s most enduring myths: that black and white are separate and meaningful racial categories. Drawing upon little- known racial identity trials and extensive genealogical and historical research, Daniel Sharfstein brings sharply to life the stories of three families who over the course of three centuries journeyed from black to white. Written with a novelist’s eye for fascinating characters and a 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)

Ira Berlin

“By unraveling the process whereby black became white and vice-versa, Sharfstein unmasks the fiction of race and, in exquisite detail, exactly how race was—and is—made in the United States. This is a true American story. Its consequences pervade the American past and shadow its future.” --(Ira Berlin, professor of history at the University of Maryland, and the author of Many Thousands Gone)

Lawrence M. Friedman

“THE INVISIBLE LINE is a stunning achievement. It is a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the role of race in American history, and particularly the role of those individuals and families who found themselves in the borderlands of racial identity. The book is beautifully written, one of those rare books which makes history come alive. What these families endured and achieved, what they suffered and what they accomplished is part of the true story of the people of America, but one which is rarely told.”--(Lawrence M. Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor, Stanford Law School, Stanford University, and author of A History of American Law)

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“THE INVISIBLE LINE is an original and often startling look at the vagaries of the "color line," and those who passed over it and those who hovered around it. Sharfstein shows that this line could be manipulated not only by individuals and families, but also by the legal and political institutions of the South. In so doing, he shows definitively, and as no other study has done, 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.)

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The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
kraaivrouw on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I have always been fascinated with ambiguity, especially where race and gender are concerned. So much of what we understand to be writ in stone is barely writ at all. The passage across perceived lines of race and gender is difficult or simple depending on when and where you live and how affluent or poor you are. It is in the interstices of these constructs that a greater understanding of either side of the line can be seen more clearly.In The Invisible Line Mr. Sharfstein traces the histories of three families and their different journeys across the color line(and sometimes back again). He amply demonstrates the flexibility inherent in early American social systems and the solidification of race constructs after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Along the way he tells a wonderful story and he tells it well. Writing with precision and literary verve, he lays out the stories of these families and through them we are able to see and contextualize our complex history and the ways we've learned to live with each other.Mr. Sharfstein's fascinating and readable history reminds us that in many ways we are who we say are and much of who we can get away with saying we are is filtered through class and community. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in well-written social history of all kinds.
nbmars on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This outstanding history of the concept of race in America focuses on the overlooked mass migration from black to white as many African Americans gave up their identities in return for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As blacks, they suffered restrictions on the ability to earn a living, get an education, enjoy public facilities, avoid threats and insults, and live without the fear of lynching when the mood of whites spoiled. As Sharfstein points out, even years after the Civil War ended, "Countless thousands of Negroes in the South lived in conditions approximating slavery, shackled by sharecropping contracts, arrested on trumped-up charges, and sold as convict labor. Every few days a Negro was lynched: burned, shot, castrated, hacked to pieces."Thus, crossing the invisible line between races became more and more attractive for ¿racially ambiguous¿ people, of whom there were many. Some even chose poverty as whites over affluence as blacks to escape the poisonous consequences of racism. This journey from black to white forced Americans to come to grips with what the meaning of race, and how much of a ¿melting pot¿ they wanted their country to be (in contrast to populist rhetoric). Ironically, in the South, white communities often let individual blacks ¿pass¿ as long as they lived and acted as whites. After all, ¿to insist on a stricter rule would have been dangerous to the social order, as it would have risked reclassifying an unsettling number of people.¿In order to illustrate the experience of African Americans crossing the color line, Sharfstein follows three families over two centuries. He selected these three, he writes, ¿because they were typical, but also extraordinary.¿ And in the course of documenting their experiences, he offers a close-up look at seminal events in American history from the perspective of how they affected racial classification and what it meant for the millions of Americans outside the strict classification of black or white. As Sharfstein argues, ¿From the colonial era well into the twentieth century, the idea of race ¿ the notion that blood transmitted moral character and social fitness ¿ provided a central reason why American democracy exalted some people at the enduring expense of others.¿ It¿s a radically different and fascinating way to approach American history. As Sharfstein emphasizes, from the very beginning of our nation, ¿¿the consequences of being black or white were enormous. It often meant the difference between slavery and freedom, poverty and prosperity, persecution and power.¿Once the importation of slaves was forbidden, the South needed to ensure that the children of slaves remained slaves in order to have a steady supply of new slaves, in spite of the fact that many of them had white slaveholding fathers. And of course, the creation of an inferior ¿Other¿ helped to eliminate class tensions among whites.After the Civil War, the need for sharper boundaries between black and white increased. Sharfstein postulates, "Before the war slavery had established and supported white privilege. As long as law and violent custom preserved the boundary between master and chattel, privileged whites had had little read need to insist on racial purity; allowing ambiguous people to become white only strengthened the prevailing order. [He observes that many of those in the middle claimed a Cherokee or Portuguese grandmother.] In slavery¿s absence, however, preserving white privilege seemed to require new, less flexible rules about race and constant, aggressive action to enforce them.¿ One of the most effective methods of fostering resistance to civil rights for newly freed slaves was to express racism through the vocabulary of sexual deviancy. Thus orators railed about the ¿degeneracy of black women and the ¿depravity¿ of black men justifying laws separating the races. Later, at end of the 19th Century, ¿scientific¿ reports on the races ¿established¿
whitreidtan on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Extensively researched and well-documented, this scholarly history examines a recognized but often over-looked phenomenon in American history and racial relations: crossing the color line. As the subtitle, Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White, suggests, the book uses as case studies three different families who crossed the color line at three different times in history and at three different Southern places. The end result for each of the families was quite different socio-economically with one family gaining significantly in power, while one descended sharply, and a third continued along at about the same subsistence level in which they had been living. Told in a chronological fashion, the stories of the Gibson's, Wall's, and Spencer's personal family histories are woven through with the history, politics, and law of the times to create a picture of just how each family's racial designation changed over time. The narration is a curious mix of detached historical fact and a deliberate and immediate omniscient narration style more commonly found in fiction. The bulk of the story centers around the decades immediately preceding and then subsequent to the Civil War when the concept of race was established more firmly in legal terms than at any time prior or since. And while the story is of the families as wholes, the focus is rather tighter on certain family members who left more historical record. Sharfstein chooses to keep his historical narration chronological which means that chapters on each family alternate throughout the book. This was sometimes slightly confusing and difficult to follow, especially in the beginning before the major figures became quite as distinct and recognizable as they eventually did. Once the central figure in each family was better established, it was easier to follow the switches but then they became a bit distracting as just when the reader settles into one family's narrative, the chapter break appeared to follow a different family's narrative. Despite the structural difficulties, there is much interesting information contained here. I had always assumed from classes and previous mentions in books that the color line was fairly rigid and that "passing" was a difficult and fraught endeavor. While it was certainly fraught given the laws on the books about what percentage of blood, even the infamous "one drop," determined race, the line was never as uniformly rigid as many history books make it out to be. In fact, it turns out that the color line was actually rather porous. And that rather than being a furtive, quick event, crossing the line could, in some cases, be more of a gradual drift that not only did no one question but in which entire communities were complicit. I found the book to be a rather dense read when it delved into racial legalities and political situations but strangely descriptively fictional feeling when discussing the lives of these very real people. There are several instances of repetition of the historical facts made all the more obvious by their similar wording within the different family's chapters. In spite of the structural flaws and dichotomous narrative technique, there was much good, very detailed information to be found here. This book could easily be required reading for a college history class focused on race in the South, being generally more readable than many traditional history books. It is certainly an interesting entry toward a more complete understanding of race and the US, shining a light on a fascinating phenomenon that was for so long only whispered of, if even that.
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