Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review: The Invisible Line by Daniel Sharfstein

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White by Daniel J. Sharfstein
Genre: Non-fiction History
Pages: 416
Publication Date: February 2011
Publisher: Penguin Press
Source: I received a free review copy of this book as part of a TLC Book Tour.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book description (from the publisher):
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.

I think it is probably pretty common for many people to assume that prejudice and segregation in America's history was (forgive the pun) pretty black and white. We assume that the color line was easily distinguishable, and that the rhetoric that came out of prejudice and segregation kept Black Americans from marrying into white families. After all, interracial marriage was seriously looked down upon, if not forbidden, so the creation of mixed race families in the 1800s (outside of the plantation) would seem difficult at best.

The Invisible Line refutes these assumptions and shows that the color line was a lot more porous than many would think. As law professor and author Daniel Sharfstein points out in the introduction:
The law's language could be confident with respect to race, but reality was more complex. A statute might draw a 'bright line'--defining, as many state legislatures eventually did, anyone with any African ancestry as black. In practice, however, such laws were never crystal clear. Enforcing a color line to its logical extreme was impossible--it would classify as black people who by all appearances were white. In most of the South there were no reliable birth records until the twentieth century.... As a result, individuals and communities drew lines for themselves and for their neighbors in ways that suited them best, often allowing racially ambiguous people to become white. (9)
This book focuses on the evolution of three families, the Gibsons, the Spencers, and the Walls, from black to white. The book follows the families' histories from their black roots to later generations that considered themselves white and had no idea that they had any persons of African descent in their family tree. Their stories are interesting and diverse.

Gideon Gibson crossed the racial divide the earliest (in the 1760s) and by the mid 1800s his descendants were successful white plantation owners who owned slaves, fought for the Confederate army in the Civil War, and even became Democratic politicians who upheld the notion of white supremacy in the South. 

The Spencers settled in rural Kentucky, where their neighbors accepted and seemed not to care that Jordan was "mulatto" and his wife Malinda was white. They came to own and farm their own land, helping them "blend in" with the community, and their reasonable success (he repeatedly mortgaged the farm but always made good on the loans) meant that their neighbors tolerated them and did not hesitate to do business with them.
The difference between black and white was less about 'blood' or biology or even genealogy than about how people were treated and whether they were allowed to participate fully in community life. Blacks were the people who were slaves, in fact or in all but name; the rest were white. Jordan Spencer's community could accept him as an equal as long as he never forced them to acknowledge his ancestry. As long as he was one of the crowd, people could forget what made his family different. (84)
The Walls, on the other hand, were part of the black elite of Washington, D.C., in the years following the Civil War. O.S.B. Wall's father was a white plantation owner, his mother a slave. He had been freed and educated in the North, later becoming the first regularly commissioned black captain in the Union army. He held various government positions including Freedman's Bureau officer, police magistrate, justice of the peace, and legislator in the territorial assembly. But the end of Reconstruction and the solidification of segregation in the South gave his family fewer opportunities, and his children took advantage of their light complexions to establish themselves and their children as white:
The harder whites made it for blacks to earn a living, educate their children, and just make it through a single day without threat or insult, the greater the incentives grew for light-skinned blacks to leave their communities and establish themselves as white.... The difference between white and black seemed obvious, an iron-clad rule, a biological fact. But the Walls knew that blacks could be as good as whites and as bad, as smart and as stupid. Blacks had just as much claim to schooling and jobs and love and family, to common courtesies each day....As the United States veered from slavery to Jim Crow, O.S.B. Wall's children did not stand up and fight. They faded away. (236)
The book is organized chronologically, which results in each chapter jumping from one family's story to the next. It can be a bit confusing and jarring at first, but eventually I was able to get the names and families straight in my mind and became engrossed in their stories. Of the three, I was most enthralled by the Wall family, and especially O.S.B. Wall's life. It also helps that the writing is particularly readable and in places picturesque, an achievement I can definitely appreciate in a work of non-fiction.

I think one of the saddest aspects of the move from black to white as portrayed in this book was how it resulted in severed ties within family and community. The effect was most clearly seen in the Wall family--when they had been part of the black elite of Washington, they were well-known and had close relationships with family and friends in their community. When O.S.B. Wall's children made the move to become white, they cut ties with their friends and family and became, more or less, anonymous. They faced challenges when they tried to send their children to white schools, so they changed their names, they moved around often, and they avoided black families in their neighborhood for fear that they would be found out. Even more depressing was that those who crossed the color line seemed to feel the need to prove their "whiteness" by adopting the racist attitudes of many of the whites around them. But the worst thing is knowing that our society and government had created an atmosphere where people felt that any of this was necessary.

This book is important because it challenges a lot of preconceived notions about race relations in the United States from the 1700s through the early 1900s. It is easy to look at the rhetoric that was common in the South at the time and assume that the words translated into reality. This book shows that things were not that simple, and explores the way that these three mixed race families dealt with the challenges caused by the country's evolving race relations. As the author so aptly concludes:
The Gibsons, Spencers, and Walls embody fundamental tragedies of our past--the vexed relationship between liberty and equality, the possibility of tolerance alongside the choice to hate. At the same time their histories offer some reason for hope. They provide an occasion to understand race in a different way and an opportunity to acknowledge our enduring, if at times hidden, capacity to privilege the particular over the abstract, and everyday experience over what we have been told to believe. (324)
I know this has become overly long, so I'll wrap it up. This was a thought-provoking book on a controversial and difficult subject. I thought the author handled the subject matter in a pretty even-handed way, even when I felt a bit uncomfortable at times with the reality of what I was reading. But even when history is uncomfortable it helps us understand how we got where we are today and hopefully helps us to make better decisions in the future.

Related Linkage:
Reading Challenges: POC Reading Challenge, Dewey Decimal Challenge 


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