Review of The Invisible Line by Daniel J. Sharfstein, Also Appearing on KAZI Book Review
Daniel Sharfstein will be interviewed by Tim Chamberlain and I on KAZI Book Review Sunday, June 26, 12:30-12:45 p.m. central time on KAZI 88.7 FM in Austin, Texas. Listen live online at kazifm.org.
By Tim Chamberlain
Glancing back at history, it is easy to assume that there has always been a fairly clear line dividing whites and blacks in this country. In The Invisible Line Daniel J. Sharfstein shows through a meticulously-researched history how that line was crossed by three families and what circumstances precipitated the move from black to white.
One of the main ideas Sharfstein brings across is that there has never been a definite line defining race no matter how much people have tried. Race classifications were enacted often by legislators, but local standards and classifications varied widely to fit local needs and customs. This space allowed some to become white.
Communities would invent races to explain why some of their neighbors, friends and family were dark-skinned. There were many claims of Indian and Portuguese blood or stories of stranded Spanish explorers to justify why a white person might be darker-skinned than someone already defined as black. Sharfstein states it best when describing OSB Wall’s thoughts on the reality of relations between blacks and whites: “…the law was neither the Constitution nor the legislature’s enactments. It was how people lived every day.”
The three families followed by Sharstein seem to cover the spectrum of families that might make the transition from black to white. The Gibsons are a leading family in the southern aristocracy, staunchly Confederate, but descended from a free black man from South Carolina. The Spencers are farmers in the mountains of rural Kentucky, respected enough by friends and neighbors that their race is never questioned. The Walls are descended from a white slave owner that frees the children he has with his slaves, while at the same time leaving the mothers in slavery. These stories span from the 1760s to the present day, giving The Invisible Line the feel of an American epic. Luckily, the author has helpfully included family trees for all three families–a great relief, as you will find yourself flipping back to them often.
The greatest triumph of The Invisible Line is that it shows not only why crossing the color line was seen as necessary by some, but it also shows how the crossing was possible. There are a great number of quotes from primary sources (such as letters, newspapers and court records) that the author deftly uses to illustrate how people reacted to racial questions in the context of their own time. With The Invisible Line, Sharfstein has given insight into an often overlooked aspect of American history.