March 15, 2011 Daniel J. Sharfstein writes the best kind of history book: one that explains what really happened to human beings of earlier days, and why the truth of their lives is more nuanced and less straightforward than received wisdom tends to suggest. In The Invisible Line, Sharfstein tells the stories of mixed-race people in the nineteenth century who managed–almost always through unstated collusion with their white neighbors–to defy the so-called “one-drop rule,” which held that anyone with a single drop of African blood was by definition black.
As Raymond Arsenault’s review in The New York Times notes, reality wasn’t always so clear: “In an illuminating and aptly titled book, ‘The Invisible Line,’ Daniel J. Sharfstein demonstrates that African-Americans of mixed ancestry have been crossing the boundaries of color and racial identity since the early colonial era. An associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University and an author with a literary flair, Sharfstein documents this persistent racial fluidity by painstakingly reconstructing the history of three families. In a dizzying array of alternating chapters, he presents the personal and racial stories of the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls. The result is an astonishingly detailed rendering of the variety and complexity of racial experience in an evolving national culture moving from slavery to segregation to civil rights.”
“Passing” is, of course, a complicated issue in African-American literature; Sharfstein shows that the question of mixed-race identity affects the white majority in complicated ways, as well. “The book’s most important revelation is the connection between community stability and tolerance of racial passing,” Arsenault writes. “While the letter of the law might suggest a ‘bright line’ between black and white, the reality of race was decidedly ‘more complex.’ Both inside and outside the courtroom, as Sharfstein observes, the conservative impulse to protect the status quo fostered ‘a tendency to preserve existing social relationships and discourage overzealous policing of the color line.'” To read the full review, click here.
Additional–and invariably swooning–media coverage of The Invisible Line can be found in these publications:
To read Chapter 16‘s review of The Invisible Line, click here.
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