Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Invisible Line: Black, White and Grey All Over

(Image from Indiebound)

For an issue as seemingly black and white as race, careful study reveals an awful lot of grey. Vanderbilt University law professor Daniel J. Sharfstein undertook one such investigation, following the histories of three American families as they traveled across the color line, changing the color of their skin, indeed their entire racial identity, from black to white. The Invisible Line, Sharfstein's first book, is their story.

Interwoven throughout the book are the family histories of three families:


The Gibsons, who were some of the first free people of color in 17th-Century Virginia, soon tired of the increasingly oppressive laws being made against free blacks. Although their arrival in South Carolina alarmed settlers who thought they were coming to head a slave revolt, the family settled peacefully in the South. There they were known as neither black nor white, but simply as planters. According to Sharfstein's research, the earliest members of the family were "reputedly ornery, never content with their station, [and]continually challenging attempts to classify them" (23). A generation or two later, Gibsons were graduating from the nation's best colleges, owning large tracts of land, buying slaves, and involving themselves in the political issues of the times.

The Spencers lived in the Appalachian Mountains, a place so remote that neighbors cared more about each others' dependability than about their ethnicity. Although Jordan Spencer's skin was visibly dark, his community accepted him as white. Since he married a white woman, his children, grand children and great-grand children had lighter skin tones, some pale enough to "pass" as Caucasian. While some members of the family left Appalachia, most stayed, finding work as salt miners. It was really only in the early 1900s, after a white man was shot, that the Spencers' ethnicity was called into question. Even then, residents of the family's community realized that the lawsuit brought against the family was more about revenge than anything else. For the most part, the Spencers stayed in Appalachia, straddling the color line for generations.

The Wall Family began with a rich plantation owner in Rockingham, North Carolina. Although Stephen Wall never married, he fathered children with three of his slaves. He refused to free the mothers of his children, but did send his offspring to Ohio, where they were reared and educated by Quaker abolitionists. Wall acquired land for them, paid for them to receive higher education, and left them money in his will. His children became passionate abolitionists, serving in the Freedman's Bureau and the Union Army. Years later, some members headed to Washington, D.C., where they continued to fight for the rights of both blacks and women. Later on, however, they faded into the white world.

Using this trio of families, Sharfstein makes many interesting points about the history of race in The United States. Most fascinating for me was the difficulty different states had in identifying what made a person "black" or "colored." Did a person need to be 1/8 black, 1/4 black or simply look black, in order to be subject to the stiffer laws? If a person hailed from a mixed ancestry, was he black, white or something in between? To what laws was he subject? This confusion led to a plethora of court cases, including one against blonde-haired, blue-eyed Isabel Wall, who, in 1909, was expelled from an all-white school because she was "colored." Strangely, the Appalachian Mountain people seemed to have the most forward-thinking attitude; for 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" (84).

Because of Sharfstein's background in law, he delves deeply into both historical lawsuits and politics to prove his points, so much so that I got a bit bored with it all. Overall, though, The Invisible Line, is a fascinating book that explores a slew of issues related to the black/white experience. Each of the families the author highlights is fascinating in its own right and offers a unique perspective on the subject. The premise (Is there really such thing as black or white?) is eye-opening, groundbreaking and definitely thought-provoking. In fact, I'm still mulling it all over. Suffice it to say, I'm glad I read The Invisible Line, even if I did yawn through a few parts.

(Readalikes: Hm, I can't really think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and some violence

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Invisible Line from the generous folks at Penguin and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

2 comments:

  1. This book sounds really interesting.

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  2. This is such a hot button issue in our society today, and it has been that way for years. This sounds like a book that everyone needs to read, if only to open their eyes to the complexities of the issue.

    Thanks for being on the tour.

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