The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White
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The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White

3.74 of 5 stars 3.74  ·  rating details  ·  149 ratings  ·  56 reviews
"The Invisible Line" shines light on one of the most important, but too often hidden, aspects of American history and culture. Sharfstein's narrative of three families negotiating America's punishing racial terrain is a must read for all who are interested in the construction of race in the United States."
--Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hemings...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published February 17th 2011 by Penguin Press HC, The
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Won in FirstReads giveaway! Thanks, FirstReads.
I enjoyed this book a lot overall, although sometimes the wealth of historical detail was distracting or confusing. I appreciated the exploration of the color line and the way it was a lot more fluid than we like to think - people often chose to look the other way and tacitly accept their neighbors as white (or "white enough") so they didn't have to re-organize their whole social schema. It was also interesting to learn more about the history of fre...more
This outstanding history of the concept of race in America focuses on the overlooked mass migration from black to white as many African Americans gave up their identities in return for the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As blacks, they suffered restrictions on the ability to earn a living, get an education, enjoy public facilities, avoid threats and insults, and live without the fear of lynching when the mood of whites spoiled.

In spite of the meticulous research and theor...more
I have always been fascinated with ambiguity, especially where race and gender are concerned. So much of what we understand to be writ in stone is barely writ at all. The passage across perceived lines of race and gender is difficult or simple depending on when and where you live and how affluent or poor you are. It is in the interstices of these constructs that a greater understanding of either side of the line can be seen more clearly.

In The Invisible Line Mr. Sharfstein traces the histories o...more
The Invisible Line is a fascinating study in race relations about a topic that I personally always felt was slightly taboo. Following three different families, all with very different backgrounds and all at different moments of crossing the racial line, the reader becomes immersed in the murky details of race through one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. A history lesson in narrative form, The Invisible Line turns the idea of being black or white on its head.

Mr. Sharfstein's me...more
This book is fascinating! I thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in history and/or the experience of race. It tracks 3 American families who 'crossed the race line' at different points in history - the Gibsons, Spencers, and Walls. When I first started, I found the switches from family to family confusing - the book goes by era, describing each family in that era before moving on to the next - but by the time it reached the Civil War era I started to enjoy it....more
This book greatly exceeded my expectations! I became interested in the topic when I discovered several years ago that my great-grandfather crossed the color line and his children covered the tracks. This fabulously researched narrative of three families breaks open the taboo subject and exposes it for what it is - a story of real people stuck between social constructed and historically evolving race categories. A fascinating read for all serious student of race relations and social history!
The Invisible Line brought into the light one of the not-so-secret truths of society: that black and white are not totally separate and do not necessarily live separate.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, especially given the wealth of historical detail. I appreciated the exploration of the "color line", and the presentation of the fluidity of that line, something which, as a genealogist, I have run across. Some cousins are very different shades, and that is a point this book makes - that we are not...more
While the topic is fascinating, the prose reads like a doctoral thesis - factual, but dry and dull. I have a personal policy to give books at least 50 pages before giving up. I made it through 32 of this one before putting it down for good.
This is a well-written, well-researched book but, more than that, it is readable and the fruits of the author's research presented in a palatable way. Using the stories of the three families as the anchor, he creates a believable narrative, with enough interest and momentum in their personal stories then, within that structure, he provides context and background of the social and political environments.

I don't think this is simply about these three families, it is about how they represent so man...more
Gary Null
Based on extensive historical research, Sharfstein tells the stories of three American families—the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls—who were able to cross over from their black racial identities to white identities.

The Gibsons moved west from South Carolina to raise sugarcane in Louisiana and horses in Kentucky. They were descendent from a free family of color from Virginia in the 1700s that had assimilated into a Welsh and Scots-Irish farming community. Some of the Gibsons fought for the Co...more
Margaret Sankey
Inspired by the increasing stories of amateur genealogists who now have access to digitized records and discover that their families' histories are carefully built fictions, Sharfstein follows three families back and forth across the American color line--the Gibsons, ex-slaves from Jamestown turned backcountry Regulators, who traded their political demands for recognition as part of the plantation elite (and thus rose to Civil War and Reconstruction heights as officers, Senators and playboys, th...more
I thought this was a fascinating look at a part of life in that era that is somewhat unexplored. The three families he follows are varied so that we get a look at different situations. The first family begins identifying as white in the late 1700s, the second family begins identifying as white in the mid-1800s, and the third doesn't identify as white until the 1920s. But by the time the author contacts the surviving family members in 2005, none of them have been raised to know that they descend...more
Race designations have always baffled me. People attribute behaviors, characteristics, and untold number of other attributes to individuals based on -- on -- something that may be a social construct. I mean, I get anthropological differences in various groups of people, but in the United States, race once (and perhaps for some, still does) meant superior/inferior. And at some point in time, someone MAY have crossed the arbitrary line of color, and produced offspring, making that LINE quite blurr...more
I won this on first reads! Goodreads likes me again!

Not so much anymore, as it's been over a month since I've won a book.
As a genealogist, I was immediately intrigued by Sharstein's approach to this specific historical question; he traces the lives of three families with negro ancestry through over a century. In each case the family came to identify itself as white, sometimes very intentionally, sometimes unknowingly.

While I found Sharstein's monograph a valuable addition to the scholarsh...more
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 classificatio...more
As a fan of "Finding Your Roots" and similar shows, I thought this book would be right in my wheelhouse. It had some very interesting moments, but overall I found the pacing slow. The chapters rotated between the three families and unfortunately some of the families are much more interesting than others. Also, I burn out on military history very quickly and this book covered a lot of Civil War ground, which perhaps I should have been expecting more.

I found the details about the larger social at...more
I decided to read this book because of my interest in genealogy, but the book turned out to relate three intriguing family histories that used genealogy only to provide documentation of facts. I knew that over the years "passing for white" had occurred more often than most people realized. I also knew that intermarriage was more common than many would have guessed. However, I didn't realize how society overlooked these events when it was deemed prudent or convenient to the community, (or convers...more
Dry. Very dry.

The author begins each chapter with a fictiony sort of scene-setting, but then quickly devolves into listing facts. I only read the chapters about the Gibsons... and will only continue if I'm in the mood for some family history about unremarkable strangers who lived through some remarkable times.

Maybe it was different for the other two families, but for the Gibsons, race was a non-issue. The only reason they could be included in a book like this at all was for the tongue-in-cheek e...more
I loved this book--Sharfstein's storytelling was fascinating. He recounts the family stories of 3 families who "crossed" from black to white in different eras--one in the 1700s, one before the Civil War, and another after the Reconstruction era. Not only was I engrossed by their personal stories, I was intrigued by his analysis of the changing nature of the color line, how it hardened as abolitionists became more vocal and powerful, and how some families were forced to cross the line unwillingly...more
Although this book does show considerable research, I wasn't very impressed with how the stories were told. It was hard to follow the family stories with the way the author focused on the family members at different times throughout history. I think it would have been much more interesting to read about each family individually, following their story from start to end. Aside from that, it did give an interesting inside look at how race has been perceived over the years, the prejudices and persec...more
I wish I could give half stars so this could be 3.5 stars. I really enjoyed the author's discussion of "the color line" and how it is culturally contrived instead of scientifically enforceable. This was a good background setting for race relations throughout the history of our culture. It also gives a new lens to the concept of "post race"...there's the possibility that all of us have arrived where we are from a place very different than what we thought. The only downfall of the book was that so...more
This book was fascinating, well-written, meticulously researched, and highly informative. It illuminates a piece of American history and current American life that I had never spent much time thinking about before. I reccommend it to anyone with an interest in history, politics, the South, the Civil War, or civil rights. I received a free copy through the Goodreads First Reads pattern, and I am so glad I did, because otherwise I probably would not have read it. I will be loaning out my copy and...more
I was worried that this book would be dry and slow to read, due to the fact that the author is a law professor. However, I found it quite engaging and had a hard time putting it down. It covers a lot of material, but it manages to make it understandable and interesting. The author particularly focuses on how race before the Civil War was more of a legal or social construct, rather than a biological one. I felt like I learned quite a lot from this book and came away with a more nuanced vision of...more
Lyda Phillips
A meticulous and well-written exploration of the lives of three families who crossed the color line from black to white. Beginning in colonial times and continuing to the present, Daniel Sharfstein looks at history from an intimate perspective and examines the forces that led families to deny their African heritage and have their communities accept their presentation as white. Fascinating and dramatic, as well-written as a good novel, as painstakingly researched as the best scholarship.
Jill Benvenutti
This was very much structured in an academic-nonfiction style, and the author's reseach is exhaustive. However, the topic and its implications are so fascinating, that it reads very much like historical fiction. As with many doorstopper novels, this book spand multiple generations of a few extended families, against the back drop, and in context of, the sweep of American history. The bonus is that these families are real.
Mish Middelmann
A clear, direct, diamond-sharp look at the history of race in the US with huge relevance to others including us in SA. Meticulously researched historical fact, and yet reads with the life and flow of a novel.

Deep impact on me - looking directly at what slavery really was like, what might cause a person to want to change their race, and how fluid these often cast-iron-seeming categories can be.
The author follows three families from the time of slavery until the present, showing how they went from identifying as black to becoming accepted as white -- to the point where their descendants had no idea that their ancestors had been slaves. This is fascinating research and flies in the face of all the American stereotypes about racial "purity."
Disappointing. He used actual facts - court documents, etc., but either he couldn't find any personal effects or he didn't try. Talked to 2 descendants of the 3 families- were the others not willing to talk to him, or did he not try ?

Just seems like he could have had a much better book. "Slaves in the family" was much better.
Jul 25, 2011 Cera marked it as to-read
I think I'll find this fascinating & depressing, and I do hope it touches on the incredible weirdness of the assumption that a person is white until they have a black ancestor, at which point they quit being white -- but a black person is black no matter how many white ancestors they have. I mean, how weird is that?
Thomas Stevenson
Passing is the subject of this book and the fine line that separates people by their color. Years ago I heard a review of a book in which the white author attended a family reunion where he found some of his relatives were black. Sharfstein has made a great contribution to understanding that "race" is all mental.
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The Invisible Line and White Racial Purity 1 2 Aug 03, 2014 08:03PM  
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Daniel J. Sharfstein is an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, he has been awarded fellowships for his research on the legal history of race in the United States 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 Washingt...more
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