The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

by Daniel J. Sharfstein
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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"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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143120636
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/31/2012
Pages: 432
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)

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)

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)

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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