The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (TLC Tour Review)

Book cover for "The Invisible Line" by Daniel J. Sharfstein.Title: The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White

Author: Daniel Sharfstein

Publication Year: 2011

Pages: 416

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Review copy from the publisher, for TLC Tours

From the cover:

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’ve always known that race is not something definitive. When I was a child, my parents had family friends with a child that I played with quite often. One day, my mother said something about the father being black, and I was livid. He wasn’t black! Years later, my mother explained to me that he had grown up in South Africa, and his identification papers declared him as “white”. Since the adults had always treated it as a joke and spoken about it in front of us more than once, and I was a child who didn’t really understand why skin colour should be important, I hadn’t realized that he (or his son) was “different” from me.

Up here in Canada, we don’t spend quite as much time thinking about race as it seems that our neighbours to the south do. I think that part of this is because we didn’t have the widespread existence of slavery in our history – at least, not to the extent that it happened in the United States. By the same token, we also don’t have the supposed “split” that is seen in so many American cities between “white” people and “black” people. Our society is made up of such a variety of cultures and ethnicities that to say that someone is black or white is way too simplistic.

Having said that, I’m always interested in learning more about race relations and theory in the United States. I was intrigued by the events presented in The Invisible Line because they reminded me of the concept of “passing” – identifying as black but “getting away” with pretending to be white – that I had learned about when I was in university and studying works of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Invisible Line was more about the phenomenon of actually crossing the “race line”, families changing from black to white, than about “pretending” to be something else. Sharfstein makes some really interesting points about what it means to be black, white, or somewhere in the middle (usually referred to as “mulatto” in the book), and the stories of the three families that he uses illustrate the difficulties in trying to establish a rigid distinction between black and white.

I found the stories interesting for the most part, but sometimes confusing to follow. Particularly early on in the book, when I hadn’t really established a foundation of knowledge about each family, it was sometimes difficult to really understand what was being said; partly, this was because there was just so much going on, but it was also partly because of the use of so many short quotations from primary sources. It probably would have been easier to follow if Sharfstein had incorporated more of these statements into the narrative, rather than constantly quoting them and trying to weave these statements together to tell the story.

Once I figured out what was going on, though, I found myself really taken up with the stories and the characters of individual family members. It was interesting to “watch” the transformation of each family – a strategy that I think was used really well in The Invisible Line. I don’t think that the book would have had quite as much of an impact on me if it was a typical non-fiction book about social issues, overviewing the topic but not really getting into much detail in terms of specific stories. Rather, the way that Sharfstein approached this book really worked for me – it made the stories more personal, relatable, and understandable.

And after all, isn’t that what we should be aiming for with studies like these? It’s really more about learning what happened and understanding why these events are important to individuals, even though it’s also a generalized social phenomenon. In this day and age, we should be focusing more on why these things occurred, and how they’ve affected the people involved, and I think that Sharfstein does a great job of this in The Invisible Line.


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