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The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White Hardcover – February 17, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Many persons of African American heritage but white appearance crossed the color line at times when racial classification had very real and harsh implications. Legal scholar Sharfstein chronicles the lives of three such families who made the transition from black to white during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Gibsons started as landowners in South Carolina�s backcountry and became wealthy slaveholders and part of the southern elite, producing a senator and a major figure in American commerce. The Spencers owned farmland in eastern Kentucky and eventually Appalachia, scratching out a life as part of an isolated community, in which families were loathe to set hard racial definitions until coal mining and outsiders pressed the broader social mores of the U.S. The Walls gravitated to post�Civil War Washington, DC, and became part of the black elite that challenged racial restrictions until they could no longer resist the temptation to take advantage of the escape their fair skin afforded them. Drawing on archival material, Sharfstein constructs an absorbing history, demonstrating the fluidity and arbitrariness of racial classification. --Vanessa Bush


"The Invisible Line offers a trilogy of remarkable tales brimming with risk taking, camouflage, irony, narrow escapes, misgivings, regret, delight, and full-scale human drama. Excellent histories have been published about the Great Migration of twentieth-century African Americans from the rural South to the urban North, but, until now, no authoritative and cumulative work has looked at this preceding and overlapping social movement of race changing. This book overthrows nearly everything Americans thought they knew about race."
-Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and There Is No Me Without You

"An original and often startling look at the vagaries of the 'color line.' Sharfstein shows definitively 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., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

"Sharfstein brings his original research alive with a novelist's eye for vivid detail and narrative. A groundbreaking work that will stir reflection and debate."
-Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club

"With lively prose and remarkable research, Sharfstein creates a fresh and stirring epic of American life. He weaves the vexing problem of race into the very fabric of national life and shows just how unsteady and complicated racial identity can be."
-Martha A. Sandweiss, author of Passing Strange

"A tremendous contribution to our understanding of the role of race in American history . . . One of those rare books that make history come alive."."
-Lawrence M. Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor, Stanford Law School; author of A History of American Law

"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."
-David K. Shipler, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Country of Strangers

"A beautifully written book that reveals not only how the law has shaped American ideas about race but also how the complexity of human experience has pushed against the rigid boundaries of our legal categories."
-Mark S. Weiner, professor of law, Rutgers-Newark School of Law; author of Black Trials

"Brilliant . . . a true American story. Its consequences pervade the American past and shadow its future."
-Ira Berlin, professor of history at the University of Maryland, author of The Making African America

"A must-read for all serious students of the race line in American life, written with care, verve, sophistication, and enormous learning."
--Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University

"A powerful indictment of one of America's most enduring myths. Written with a novelist's eye for fascinating characters and 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

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1St Edition edition (February 17, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202826
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202827
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #839,684 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Daniel J. Sharfstein is a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, where he teaches courses on property, legal history, and race and the law. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, he has worked as a reporter in West Africa and the Los Angeles area and practiced public interest law in California. For his research in legal history, he has been awarded fellowships from Harvard, New York University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has written for The Yale Law Journal, The New York Times, The Economist, The Washington Post, and other publications. Born in Boston and raised in Maryland, he lives with his family in Nashville, Tennessee.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The introduction to this book promises that the stories within will "help make sense of liberty and equality, tolerance and intolerance, and race and racism in the United States."

It's an ambitious goal, which the book fully delivers on and even surpasses. What this reader found and prized most in the end was a book of stories less particularly about race or America or blacks or whites (though all that is amply in there) than one about human nature and families and how they behave.

Ordinary readers shouldn't be put off by the fact that the author is a law professor and there are a lot of blurbs from academics. Once this gets going, it's very hard to put down -- I read the last 200 pages or so in one sitting and it is one of the best books I have read in years.

One of the families that started out black in the book produced a Yale-educated Confederate general with a descendant who married into the Marshall Field department store family and another descendant who commissioned 100 bronze statues for the Hall of the Races of Mankind at the Field Museum in Chicago. For another, crossing the color line from black to white seems to have been, as Sharfstein puts it, "a downwardly mobile move....from the heights of African American achievement to...the bare edge of the middle class."

Between the Civil War scenes, the courtroom dramas, a rescue of a fugitive slave, and a surprising twist at the end that I'm not going to give away here, it amounts to a tale that's tremendously entertaining and that contains at least a few flashes of hope amid all the unavoidable suffering and sadness. And perhaps most hopeful of all is that it's a story that, as Sharfstein reminds us in the final sentence of the book, is still being written and made anew.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a lover of genealogy and history, I could not put this book down! Daniel Sharfstein does a masterful job of walking the reader through the lives, the times, and the journeys these three families took across the American landscape. Additionally, he gives a "flesh and blood" account of what laws and court decisions had on shaping this country's attitudes on race and family. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to delve into America's "hidden history"!
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Format: Hardcover
The invisible line of the title is the color line drawn in the sand of American history by whites to keep blacks in their place: demeaned, degraded, often despised. Invisible in the sense that the color of race varies from one person to another and, even when not apparent, is as palpable to the person of color as a strawberry birthmark on the cheek of a youngster, or the concentration camp number tattooed on the arm of a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz.

Daniel J. Sharfstein's remarkable study of the members of three American families who, in one generation or another, passed for white over the centuries from the late 1700's almost to the present day, makes it heartbreakingly clear that racism is the failing that, more than all of our other egregious national shortcomings combined (sexism, materialism, militarism, religious extremism), has prevented us from achieving the Founding Fathers' dream of a democratic society open, on an equal footing, to all.

Sharfstein's study, eighteen years in the making, traces the history of the Walls, the Spencers and the Gibsons from their beginnings as plantation slaves and black freemen in the south as they fought to make their way in a white world. At virtually each step of the way someone was there to string the trip wire of their black heritage across their path. Time and time again they fell, and just as often, picked themselves up as they sought to gain the promises made to them by the Declaration of Independence, by the Emancipation Proclamation and by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution. The raw, brutal, white-sanctioned terror of the Jim Crow era that worked overtime to nullify those guarantees often, but not in every instance, did so.

As you might expect, ironies abound in their stories.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Invisible Line is the best type of history book -- delving into the thorny issue of racial identity and keeps readers engaged through to the last page. In fact, you want more of the book when done. The reader is left with a much better sense of the senselessness of our racial laws and divisions. And, like any good book, questions to mull over -- what do other members of the family feel? How will this book change the families? Change us? How many families in America today have African blood? How could it be that some families don't even know of their own parentage?

The book is eminently readable, and tells the story of three American families, all of whom crossed the color line at some point, many never looked back. Its gripping tale of family history reminded me of Anthony Lukas' stellar book on Boston's busing struggles, Common Ground - both books use personal family stories to shed light on how attitudes towards race evolve and change and shape each of us.

Highly recommended for adults, but also a great read for college and high school students.
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