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

Daniel J. Sharfstein. The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 415 pp. Hardcover ISBN: 9781594202827.

Steven F. Riley
2011-02-28

‚ÄúThis is the decade of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama, where we talked about race combinations,‚ÄĚ Robert Groves, director of the federal agency, said about forthcoming 2010 Census data in an interview on Bloomberg Television‚Äôs ‚ÄúPolitical Capital with Al Hunt‚ÄĚ. ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt wait to see the pattern of responses on multiple races. That‚Äôll be a neat indicator to watch.‚ÄĚ

The Toronto Star
December 13, 2010

While it is tempting to be as excited as Mr. Groves is in waiting for the census results of the racial makeup of the United States, I would suggest that the so-called “race combinations” that he speaks of have been occurring for quite some time.¬†Much has been written in recent years about the “changing face” of America that foretells that we will become a¬†“mixed-race” country, or as Marcia A. Dawkins states, a “Miscege-Nation.”¬† Yet, this is not wholly true, for we are not becoming a multiracial society, we already are a multiracial society.¬† We have been¬†multiracial¬†not for years, or even decades, but for centuries.

So while many may proclaim that an increasing number of self-identified mixed-race individuals will usher in a new era of racial reconciliation, we are fortunate to benefit from the excellent scholarship of Daniel J. Sharfstein, Associate Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University, who points out to us that racial mixture is as old as the nation and it has not‚ÄĒin and by itself‚ÄĒled to racial reconciliation. ¬†In fact, his portrayal of three families over a span of three centuries in his new book The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White,¬†shows that under the specter¬†of white supremacy, racial mixture was‚ÄĒand may still be‚ÄĒa way-station on the road to a white racial identity. ¬†These racial journeys occurred so frequently in American history they should be considered one of ¬†the great mass movements of people such as the settlement of North America, the westward expansion, and immigration. Furthermore, these journeys from black to white did not necessarily involve a change of venue, but could occur in the same community over a generation or more.

Unlike the stories of the Hemmings and Hairstons¬†that explore the white roots of¬†black families, The Invisible Line is an important work that explores the “black” roots of white familes. Though “race” as we know it today is a social‚ÄĒnot biological‚ÄĒconstruct,¬† Sharfstein reminds us that it was and still is a very salient social construct.¬† In fact, for the families portrayed in the book, “race” becomes a form of wealth/property, obtained (by “passing” if necessary) and¬†inherited by future generations.¬† In The Invisible Line, Sharfstein avoids casting a pejorative gaze upon these “passers” and their occasional accusers and instead casts blame squarely on the shoulders white supremacy. ¬†Early in the introduction, Sharfstein points out that…

African Americans began to migrate from black to white as soon as slaves arrived on American shores. ¬†In seventeenth-century Virginia, social distinctions such as class and race were fluid, but the consequences of being black or white were enormous. ¬†It often meant the difference between slavery and freedom, poverty and prosperity, persecution and power. ¬†Even so, dozens of European women had children by African men, and together they established the first free black communities in the colonies. ¬†With every incentive to become white‚ÄĒit would give them better land and jobs, lower taxes, and less risk of being enslaved‚ÄĒmany free blacks assimilated into white communities over time…

After researching hundreds of families, court cases, government records, histories, scholarly works, newspaper accounts, memoirs and family papers, Sharfstein chose to focus on three families: the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls.  Each of these families left the bondage of slavery and took different trajectories on the path towards a white identity.

The Gibsons

The Gibson story begins in 1672 in colonial Virginia when a free woman named Elizabeth Chavis successfully sued for the freedom of a boy of color named Gibson Gibson… who was also her son. In a reversal of English law where the status of the child followed that of the father, the colonies in a bid to codify slavery enacted laws that set the status of the child to follow the mother, or as the saying went, “birth follows the belly.” Contrary to popular belief, the laws did little to restrict interracial unions‚ÄĒespecially between white men and black women‚ÄĒbut rather, channeled these unions for the benefit of the institution of slavery. For Gibby Gibson and his brother Hubbard, harsh laws against people of color encouraged them to marry whites. Sharfstein states:

Whites in the family gave their spouses and children stronger claims to freedom and had immediate economic advantages‚ÄĒwhile black women were subject to heavy taxes, white women were not.¬† Increasingly harsh laws¬†did not separate Africans and Europeans.¬† To the contrary, they spurred some people of¬†African descent¬†to try to escape their classification.

The Gibsons took what I shall describe as a fast-track to whiteness.¬† After Gibby Gibson’s freedom he and his brother spent the next 50 years amassing land and, yes… slaves.¬† After moving to South Carolina in the 1730s as planters they were granted hundreds of acres. By the time of the Civil War they were part of the Southern aristocracy.¬† Two brothers, Randall Lee and Hart Gibson, again took the spotlight and became standout students at Yale University and later ,officers in the Confederate Army.¬† Randall was promoted to brigadier general in 1864.¬† Despite the Confederate defeat at the end of the war, Randall would be a successful New Orleans lawyer, a founder of Tulane University,¬†and would eventually be elected to represent Louisiana¬†for four terms in the House of Representatives and for nine years in the U.S. Senate.

Randall Gibson’s white identity went unchallenged until January 27, 1877, when James Madison Wells wrote in an article that, “This colored Democratic Representative seems to claim a right to assail the white race because he feels boastingly proud of the¬†commingling of the African with Caucasian blood in his veins.”¬† This accusation was grounds for libel, but Gibson did not sue Wells.¬† He did not need to.¬† As Sharfstein deftly points out frequently throughout the Invisible Line, white communities were very much aware of “mixture in their midst,” yet chose to believe these individuals were white.¬† Even if a person believed that his or her whiteness was secure,¬†accusing ones neighbor¬†of being black could have unintended consequences, especially if¬†your children had offspring with the neighbor.¬† “Race” became a socially agreed upon arrangement.¬†¬† Thus, as Sharfstein wrote in a 2007 article:

“…the one-drop rule did not, as many have suggested, make all mixed-race people black. From the beginning, African Americans assimilated into white communities across the South. Often, becoming white did not require the deception normally associated with racial ‚Äúpassing‚ÄĚ; whites knew that certain people were different and let them cross the color line anyway. These communities were not islands of racial tolerance. They could be as committed to slavery, segregation, and white supremacy as anywhere else, and so could their newest members‚ÄĒit was one of the things that made them white. The history of the color line is one in which people have lived quite comfortably with contradiction.”

Yet this contradiction was not the same of acceptance, especially in Louisiana, where Sharfstein says…

“the existence of a large, traditionally free mixed-race class meant that whites had long competed with people of color for jobs, land, and status…¬† …On the streets of New Orleans, it was famously difficult to distinguish one race from the other at a glance‚ÄĒmany whites were dark, and many blacks were light.¬† Every day people witnessed the color line bending and breaking.¬† The result was that whites believed all the more deeply in their racial supremacy.¬† They organized their entire political life around it…. …Believing in racial difference‚ÄĒenough to kill for it‚ÄĒwas what kept whites separate from blacks.¬† For¬†white Louisianans, knowing that blacks could look like them did not discount the importance of blood purity.¬† Rather, they were as likely as anyone in the South to consider a person with traceable African ancestry, no matter how remote, to be black.¬† The porous nature of the color line required eternal vigilance.”

The Spencers

The Spencers took an inconspicuous path towards¬†a white identity.¬† George Freeman, possibly the son of his owner Joseph Spencer, was emancipated at twenty-four years of age around 1814 in Clay County, Kentucky.¬† Through hard work and a large family, Freeman was able to raise a profitable farm, enough so that he could provide loans to other farmers.¬† By 1840, Freeman’s wife had died, but by then eleven people lived with him including his grown daughters with children of their own.¬† In 1841, the ¬†Freeman farm would make room for another resident; a twenty-five year-old pioneer white woman from South Carolina named Clarissa “Clarsy” Centers, who was pregnant with his child.¬† Freeman and Centers were not married, and could not if they had wanted to because of Kentucky’s anti-miscegenation laws.¬† Sharfstein points out:

“Freeman and Centers were not the only ones in Clay County breaching the color line.¬† Several free black women were living with white men.¬† It was less common, however for black men to have families with white¬†women, and their relationships were perceived as a far greater threat to the social and racial order.¬† After all, the mixed-race children of black women, more often than not, [became]¬†pieces of property, markers of wealth, for their owners.¬† But the children of slave men and white¬†women were free under Kentucky law, and they blurred the physical distinctions that made racial status conceivable and enforceable.¬† As a result, all such relationships were subversive, even those involving free men.

Moreover, the control that white men had over their families, something that approached ownership under the law, helped maintain the idea that all white men were equal citizens in a country increasingly stratified by wealth…¬† …That control was undermined when white women had children with black men…

At the same time white communities did not always respond to these relationships with reflexive deadly violence.¬† They were capable of tolerating difference or pretending it did not exist.¬† Across the South in the early decades of the nineteenth century, black men and white women were forming families and living in peace.”

In 1845, George Freeman and Clarsy Centers’ daughter Malinda¬†was pregnant by Jordan Spencer, Freeman’s son or brother.¬† After three years and three children, Jordan and Malinda’s family was part of a clan of twenty people within three generations living on fifty acres on Freeman’s farm; that was to¬†small to sustain them all.

By 1855, Freeman was dead, forced to mortgage his farm to fight a fornication charge because he could not marry Clarsy Centers. The family of Jordan and Malinda was forced to move¬†100 miles away¬†within rural Johnson County, Kentucky.¬† When they got there they called themselves Jordan and Malinda Spencer and their new neighbors welcomed them into their community… and called them white. As Sharfstein states:

“In Johnson County and elsewhere, being white did not require exclusively European ancestry.¬† Many whites did not hesitate to claim Native American decent.¬† While Melungeons in Tennessee often lived apart and married among themselves, the Collins and Ratliff families in Johnson County were considerably less isolated.¬† Half of the worshippers at the Rockhouse Methodist meeting had white faces, and light and dark families were neighbors along the nearby creeks.¬† Many of the families themselves were mixed, like Jordan and Malinda Spencer’s.¬† Their community offered them a path to assimilation.¬† Although the Spencers were listed as “mulatto” in the 1860 census, dozens of Collins and Ratliff men and women were, at a glance, regarded as white.¬† Jordan Spencer may have been dark, but there was such a thing as a dark white man.”

The Walls

For the Wall family, the path to becoming white was a reluctant and painful one.  Orindatus Simon Bolivar (O.S.B.) Wall and his siblings were freed by their owner (and father) in the 1830s and 1840s and sent from their plantation in North Carolina to be raised by radical Quakers in Ohio.  O.S.B. Wall eventually ended up in Oberlin, Ohio.  With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave catchers could now demand assistance from federal and local officials in any state (including free-states) in locating and apprehending runaway slaves.  Sharfstein notes that,

“The act also permitted slave-owners to kidnap people and force them into federal court.¬† After a short hearing, a commissioner would determine the status of the person in custody.¬† Commissioners were paid ten dollars upon ruling that a person was a slave, but only five dollars if they determined that he or she was free.”

Thus even free and freed blacks lived in constant fear that they and their families could be kidnapped and enslaved.¬† Fortunately, there was no place more hostile to slave catchers than Oberlin.¬† A generation earlier, New England Puritans had built the college and the town in the northern Ohio forest, dedicating themselves to bringing “our perishing world… under the entire influence of the blessed gospel of peace.”¬† Oberlin Collegiate Institute, founded in 1832 was a school that educated both sexes and within three years took the then-radical step of admitting students “irrespective of color.” Oberlin did not just give blacks the opportunity to do business on equal terms with whites‚ÄĒit offered blacks the unheard-of possibility of real political power.¬†¬† In 1857 the town voted John Mercer Langston to be its clerk and appointed him a manager of the public schools.¬† He was the first black elected official in the United States.

After the end of the Civil War, Wall was detached to South Carolina to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned Lands, a new federal agency devoted to integrating former slaves into civil society, (otherwise known as the Freedman’s Bureau.)¬† His hope was “to do justice to freedmen” while “do[ing] no injustice to white persons.”¬† It would appear that his hopes would become a reality in the fall of 1865 when the Bureau had begun redistributing thousands of acres of confiscated property to freed-people, but President Andrew Johnson ordered almost all the land returned to its previous owners.¬† By the fall of 1865 former slaves found themselves no better than indentured servants.¬† As the hope of Reconstruction began to fade, he realized that to serve the righteous cause, he would need more than a title and a responsibility, more than the sanction of¬†law.¬† He needed power. Wall would move to Washington D.C.

By 1877 Federal troops had abandoned the South, and as Sharfstein writes:

“Democrats had carte blanche to ‘encourage violence and crime, elevate to office the men whose hands are reddest with innocent blood; force the Negroes out of Southern politics by the shotgun and the bulldozer’s whip; cheat them out of the elective franchise; suppress the Republican vote; kill off their white Republican leaders and keep the South solid.¬† Countless thousands of Negroes in the South lived in conditions approximating slavery, shackled by sharecropping contracts, arrested on trumped-up charges, and sold as convict labor.¬† Every few days a Negro was lynched: burned, shot, castrated or hacked to pieces.”

Summary

The Invisible Line reveals that the trajectory of history is never a straight line.  The promise of the Reconstruction became the repression of Jim Crow. The Democrats of the past that sought defend slavery before and during the Civil War and deny basic freedoms to blacks afterwards are now the Republicans of the present who deny these events have any impact on the lives of black Americans today. Up became down, and black became white.

Perhaps the most emphatic paragraph in the book is on page 236, where Sharfstein describes the everyday pain in the lives of black Americans.

“The harder whites made it for blacks to earn a living, educate their children, and just make it through a single day without threat or insult, the greater the incentives grew for light-skinned blacks to leave their communities and establish themselves as white.¬† If anything, the drumbeat of racial purity, the insistence that any African ancestry‚ÄĒa single drop of blood‚ÄĒtainted a person’s very existence, accelerated the migration to new identities and lives.¬† The difference between white and black seemed obvious, an iron-clad rule, a biological fact.¬† But the Walls knew that blacks could be as good as whites and as bad, as smart and as stupid.¬† Blacks had just as much claim to schooling and jobs and love and family, to common courtesies each day.¬† The Walls knew that blacks could be every bit the equal to whites‚ÄĒand that their skins could be equally light.¬† As the United States veered from slavery to Jim Crow, O.S.B. Wall’s children did not stand up and fight. They faded away.”

This paragraph for me, offers a clear rationale why individuals chose to identify as white.  More importantly though, Sharfstein like all good historians, shows us how events in the past can be repeated in the present and in the future.  For the Spencers, becoming white meant fitting in.  For the Gibsons, becoming white allowed them to amass great wealth, to lose it (after the Civil War), and reclaim it. O.S.B. Wall lived his entire life working towards the goal that people of African descent could be free, prosperous, American and black.  For the Wall children, becoming white (even at the loss of financial status) was an escape from the indignities of being black.  The chains of oppression do not always result in resistance.  Sometimes the result is denial, surrender and assimilation.  Furthermore, Sharfstein, without saying so, reasserts the importance of influence of law and power upon the lives of his subjects.  Though it is now popular for contempary novelists and cursory historians to recount, reframe, and reimagine the stories of the individual lives without acknowledging the legal and social forces shaping those lives, this is simply unacceptable.  Fortunately, the works of Daniel Sharfstein and the late Peggy Pascoe remind us, as I like to put it, not to allow the history of experiences to obscure the experience of history.

Though The Invisible Line is about past racial migrations, the book says little if anything about present-day racial migrations.  Persistent economic and social disparity among racialized groups in the United States may lead to more Gibsons, Spencers and Walls in the future.  Just over a half-century ago, in 1947, N.A.A.C.P. Secretary Walter White said:

“Every year approximately 12,000 white-skinned Negroes disappear‚ÄĒpeople whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the 14 million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is ‚Äėpassing‚Äô‚ÄĒthe magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites‚Ķ ¬†Often these emigrants achieve success in business, the professions, the arts and sciences. Many of them have married white people‚Ķ¬† Sometimes they tell their husbands or wives of their Negro blood, sometimes not‚Ķ”

Thus according to sociologist George A. Yancey, white Americans‚ÄĒdespite demographic projections‚ÄĒwill not lose their numerical majority status in 40 years or so.¬† For scholars like Yancey, Sharfstein’s secret journey to whiteness, may become a public parade.¬† Despite the increasing numbers and acceptance of interracial relationships and mixed-race births, intermarriage among non-blacks with whites far outpaces intermarriage between blacks and whites.¬† The future for Yancey and others is not a white/non-white divide, but rather a black/non-black divide.

With the increasing enactment of harsh anti-immigration legislation, it is indeed conceivable that many Asians and Latinos‚ÄĒparticularly those with mixed European ancestry‚ÄĒmay opt for a white identity through intermarriage with whites as a balm against increased anti-immigrant sentiment.¬† As sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank D. Bean point out, “Asian and Latinos may be next in line to be white, with multiracial Asian whites and Latino whites at the head of the queue.”¬† If the notion that Asians and Latinos can become white seems implausible, sociologist Charles A. Gallagher points out in his 2010 essay “In-between racial status, mobility, and the promise of assimilation: Irish, Italians yesterday, Latinos and Asians today,”¬† “If you were Italian or Irish in the mid- to late- nineteenth century it was likely that, as a matter of common understanding and perception, you were on the ‘margins of whiteness.'”

While The Invisible Line is a remarkable book that should be read by anyone interested in the complicated racial history of the United States,¬†it is not a book that trumpets a so-called “post-racial” era.¬†¬†¬†Sharfstein¬†does an excellent job shattering the notion¬†of racial difference and shows us that the African American experience is integral to the American experience as a whole.¬† Yet in doing so, he does not‚ÄĒand perhaps he should not‚ÄĒsuggest that not only is the notion of¬† “difference” a fallacy, but the notion of “race” is too.¬†¬†After all, shouldn’t the Gibsons, Spencers, Walls and their descendents transcend race at this point in time?¬† Race‚ÄĒor as Rainier Spencer suggests‚ÄĒthe belief¬†in race, has been, and still is such a potent force in American life, it may¬†take three more centuries to dispense with it.¬†For all of the current discourses on a¬†utopian future filled with mixed or blended identities, these identities are still¬†defined within same outdated and hierarchical social topology¬†of the past 400 years.¬† Thus the consequences of¬†the¬†memberships within this multi-tiered¬†topology still has the life altering outcomes‚ÄĒthough not as extreme‚ÄĒas in the¬†seventeenth century Virginia that¬†Sharfstein describes.¬† Without a drastic altering or the elimination of this topology, individuals and families who can, will continue to make the journey from a lower tiered racialized status to a higher one and heap misery and scorn upon¬†those who cannot.¬† In the end, Daniel J. Sharfstein’s Invisible Line,¬†may not only be a window to the past, but also¬†a glance at¬†the future.

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