Mixing Race, Risk, and Reward in the Digital Age (Sawyer Seminar IV)

Posted in History, Live Events, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2013-11-01 04:04Z by Steven

Mixing Race, Risk, and Reward in the Digital Age

University of Southern California
Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Center for Japanese Religions and Culture
University Park Campus
Doheny Memorial Library (DML), East Asian Seminar Room: 110C
2013-11-05, 13:00-17:00 PST (Local Time)

USC Conference Convenors:

Duncan Williams, Associate Professor of Religion
University of Southern California

Brian C. Bernards, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Southern California

Velina Hasu Houston, Associate Dean for Faculty Recognition and Development, Director of Dramatic Writing and Professor
University of Southern California

What are the outcomes of evolving racial ideologies in North America and how are they impacting 21st century American identities?  How do 21st century multiracial identities and representations reflect and challenge historical constructions of racial mixing?  How does racial mixing inform transhumanistic enterprises (i.e., wearable technology) and impact educational experiences dedicated to mixed-race studies in digital spaces?

PRESENTERS:

“Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity”

Marcia Dawkins, Clinical Assistant Professor of Communication Studies
University of Southern California (Author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor University Press, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013).)

“Frizzly Studies: Law, History, Narrative, and the Color Line”

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University (Author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (Penguin Press, 2013) and “Crossing the Color Line: Racial Migration and the Emergence of the One-Drop Rule, 1600-1860,” Minnesota Law Review (2007).)

“Tweeting into the Future: Mixing Race and Technology in the 21st Century”

Ulli K. Ryder, Scholar in Residence, Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life
Brown University (Author of forthcoming book Mixed Race 3.0: Mixing Race, Risk & Reward in the Digital Age (Annenberg Press, 2014).)

For more information, click here.

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Frizzly Studies: Negotiating the Invisible Lines of Race

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-08-16 02:12Z by Steven

Frizzly Studies: Negotiating the Invisible Lines of Race

Common Knowledge
Volume 19, Number 3 (Fall 2013)
pages 518-529
DOI: 10.1215/0961754X-2281810

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University

Beginning with the assumption that race is a conceptual blur, this contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium “Fuzzy Studies” argues that race conflates what is plain to see with something that is invisible. Race roots today’s policy decisions in a remote and often imagined past. It blurs agency and overwhelming structural inequality. It is a set of categories that people define for themselves and that, at the same time, others — strangers, neighbors, government officials — relentlessly impose upon them. For four hundred years, the meaning of racial categories in North America has remained unstable. A central question underlying the history of race in the United States is how people could acknowledge the incoherence of racial categories while still structuring their lives, communities, politics, and culture around the idea of race. At a fundamental level, race has functioned as a set of rules and rights—and legal entitlements and disabilities are a primary source of meaning for racial categories. The law provides a starting point for understanding how there could be so much consensus regarding such a blur. Legal decision making is itself a process that blurs what is objective and subjective, scientific and social, precise and penumbral. Taken together, the pervasive fuzziness of race and law ensured the resilience of clear and definable regimes of discrimination and hierarchy.

Read or purchase the article here.

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In new book, two Kentucky families discover surprising racial histories

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United Kingdom on 2013-05-14 04:39Z by Steven

In new book, two Kentucky families discover surprising racial histories

Lexington Herald-Leader
Lexington, Kentucky
2011-05-15

Linda B. Blackford

Freda Spencer Goble of Paintsville knew that she hailed from a proud and hardworking clan that carved a life out of the hills and hollows of frontier Johnson County. What she didn’t know was that one of those frontiersmen, her great-great grandfather, was partly black.

William LaBach is a Georgetown lawyer and genealogist who has long studied his Gibson relatives, a clan of Louisiana sugar planters who made a second home in Lexington before the Civil War. He’d heard that a colonial forebear was part African, but could never confirm it.

These two Kentucky families are now the subject of a new book by Vanderbilt University law professor Daniel Sharfstein. The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White reveals the complex and shifting history of race in America, a history about people’s most basic — and yet most unreliable — assumptions about their own identity…

…Thanks to books like Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball and revelations about President Thomas Jefferson’s black descendants, people have become more used to the idea that family trees branch with different ethnicities. However, the idea they might be a different ethnicity themselves is a new idea that is only recently emerging in genealogy and other historical studies.

“This is a more unsettling story. … The story really changes the way people approach race,” Sharfstein said. “For a lot of the descendants I spoke with, being white meant they really didn’t have to think about race for most of their lives. But now they’re really paying attention.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Race has never been about biology and blood…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-03-31 04:33Z by Steven

“Race has never been about biology and blood. Plenty of white people have African blood. I’m looking at this history of migration across the color line and what do categories of black and white mean? These categories have been proxies for hierarchies and discrimination… for having a full set of rights as citizens.” —Daniel J. Sharfstein

Stacie Williams, “Interview with Daniel J. Sharfstein, author of ‘The Invisible Line’,” The Christian Science Monitor, (February 23, 2011).

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The loving bride drank the blood, made the necessary oath, and his honour joined their hands, to the great satisfaction of all parties.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes, History on 2013-03-20 03:51Z by Steven

In 1819 a Scotsman named James Flint crossed the Atlantic Ocean, made his way from New York to Pittsburgh, sailed down the Ohio, and settled for eighteen months in Jeffersonville, Indiana, just opposite Louisville, Kentucky. His letters home described everything from native trees and shrubs to the “taciturnity” of American speech, “adapted to business more than to intellectual enjoyment.” Soon after arriving in Jeffersonville, Flint recounted the time when a “negro man and a white woman came before the squire of a neighbouring township, for the purpose of being married.” The official refused, citing a prohibition on “all sexual intercourse between white and coloured people, under a penalty for each offence.” Then he thought the better of it. He “suggested, that if the woman could be qualified to swear that there was black blood in her, the law would not apply. The hint was taken,” Flint wrote, “and the lancet was immediately applied to the Negro’s arm. The loving bride drank the blood, made the necessary oath, and his honour joined their hands, to the great satisfaction of all parties.”

Daniel J. Sharfstein, “Crossing the Color Line: Racial Migration and the One-Drop Rule, 1600–1860,” Minnesota Law Review, Volume 91, Number 3 (February 2007): 592-656.

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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.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-02-14 00:02Z by Steven

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—a single drop of blood—tainted 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—and 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.

Daniel J. Sharfstein. The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 236.

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

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2013-02-13 15:30Z by Steven

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

“This is the decade of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama, where we talked about race combinations,” Robert Groves, director of the federal agency, said about forthcoming 2010 Census data in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt”. “I can’t wait to see the pattern of responses on multiple races. That’ll be a neat indicator to watch.”

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—in and by itself—led 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—and may still be—a 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—not biological—construct,  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—it would give them better land and jobs, lower taxes, and less risk of being enslaved—many 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—especially between white men and black women—but 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—while 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 “passing”; 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—it 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—many 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—enough to kill for it—was 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—it 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—a single drop of blood—tainted 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—and 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—people 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 ‘passing’—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites…  Often these emigrants achieve success in business, the professions, the arts and sciences. Many of them have married white people…  Sometimes they tell their husbands or wives of their Negro blood, sometimes not…”

Thus according to sociologist George A. Yancey, white Americans—despite demographic projections—will 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—particularly those with mixed European ancestry—may 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—and perhaps he should not—suggest 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—or as Rainier Spencer suggests—the 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—though not as extreme—as 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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Complexity of Race In America

Posted in History, Interviews, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Videos on 2012-06-22 17:02Z by Steven

Complexity of Race In America

C-SPAN Video Library
Program ID: 305676-1
First Aired: 2012-06-03
New York Historical Society
New York, New York
2012-04-12

Brent Staples, Host
New York Times

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University

Daniel Sharfstein, author of The Invisible Line [:Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White], discusses the complexity of race in America and one family’s perceived transformation from black to white. The New York Historical Society hosted this event.

Watch the video (00:53:19) here.

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Daniel Sharfstein wins 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-03-26 04:25Z by Steven

Daniel Sharfstein wins 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

Vanderbilt Law School News
Vanderbilt University
2012-03-16

Daniel Sharfstein, associate professor of law, has won the 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for his sensitive account of the fine line people of mixed race have tread in the United States since the nation’s beginning, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (Penguin Press, 2011).
 
“[The Invisible Line] makes real the fact that, not so long ago, American citizens were forced into hiding their lineage and identity just to live free in this democracy, the perils and sense of loss, no matter which road they chose, and the price being paid even to this day by their descendants, and by extension, all of us,” the judges said in a press release issued by Columbia and Harvard universities.
 
The J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project, established in 1998 in honor of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist J. Anthony Lukas, is co-administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. The prize recognizes excellence in nonfiction that exemplifies the literary grace and commitment to serious research and social concern that characterized the work of its namesake, J. Anthony Lukas, who died in 1997. Sharfstein will receive the award prize of $10,000 on May 1, 2012, at a ceremony at Harvard University.

In The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, Sharfstein chronicles the history of three African American families who crossed the color line and assimilated into white communities, starting in the 17th century. The book is a result of Sharfstein’s research on the legal history of race in the United States and on dozens of families that, for social, economic, safety and other reasons, chose to change their racial identity and create new lives. He found court and government records, personal letters and other archives that helped paint vivid pictures of these Americans and document their migration across the racial divide…

Read the entire new release here.

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

Posted in Books, History, Law, Louisiana, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2012-03-26 03:49Z by Steven

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

The Penguin Press
2011-02-17
416 pages
6.14 x 9.25in
Hardcover ISBN: 9781594202827

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University

Winner of the 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

In America, race is a riddle. The stories we tell about our past have calcified into the fiction that we are neatly divided into black or white. It is only with the widespread availability of DNA testing and the boom in genealogical research that the frequency with which individuals and entire families crossed the color line has become clear.

In this sweeping history, Daniel J. Sharfstein unravels the stories of three families who represent the complexity of race in America and force us to rethink our basic assumptions about who we are. The Gibsons were wealthy landowners in the South Carolina backcountry who became white in the 1760s, ascending to the heights of the Southern elite and ultimately to the U.S. Senate. The Spencers were hardscrabble farmers in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, joining an isolated Appalachian community in the 1840s and for the better part of a century hovering on the line between white and black. The Walls were fixtures of the rising black middle class in post-Civil War Washington, D.C., only to give up everything they had fought for to become white at the dawn of the twentieth century. Together, their interwoven and intersecting stories uncover a forgotten America in which the rules of race were something to be believed but not necessarily obeyed.

Defining their identities first as people of color and later as whites, these families provide a lens for understanding how people thought about and experienced race and how these ideas and experiences evolved-how the very meaning of black and white changed-over time. Cutting through centuries of myth, amnesia, and poisonous racial politics, The Invisible Line will change the way we talk about race, racism, and civil rights.

Three American families’ stories…

The Gibsons
The Gibsons were among the first free people of color in seventeenth-century Virginia, most of whom were free because their mothers were English and by law slavery followed the status of the mother. In the early l700s, as Virginia’s laws made it increasingly difficult for free blacks to own property and earn a living, the Gibsons left the colony for the southern frontier. When the Gibsons reached South Carolina in the 1730s, the colonial assembly worried.that they had come to organize a slave revolt. But after personally interviewing the family, the colonial governor granted them hundreds of acres of land in a Welsh and Scots-Irish community. After one generation they were neither black nor white-they were planters. In the nineteenth century, they rose to the heights of the Southern aristocracy. They sent their sons to Yale and had vast holdings of land and slaves near Vicksburg, Mississippi, Lexington, Kentucky, and Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. Gibsons were rebel officers, powerful opponents of Reconstruction, and leaders of the New South.’ One became a United States Senator from Louisiana.

The Spencers
The Spencers’ story begins in the Appalachian Mountains. In an area that had more slaves and more free blacks than anywhere else in eastern Kentucky-largely because of a bustling salt mining industry there in the early 1800s-two free men of color began having children with a pair of white sisters who had recently moved from South Carolina. Shortly before one man, George Freeman, was prosecuted for interracial sex, the other man, Jordan Spencer-possibly Freeman’s brother or son-moved with his family one hundred miles deeper into the mountains. Even though he was visibly dark-skinned, his new community in Johnson County, Kentucky, decided that he could be white. His family hovered on the line between black and white for the rest of the century, farming and logging in a mountain hollow before heading into the coal mines.

The Walls
The Walls trace their roots to a wealthy plantation owner in Rockingham, North Carolina. Stephen Wall never married, but he had children with three of his slaves, In the 1830s and 1 840s, he freed his children and sent them to Ohio to be raised by radical Quaker abolitionists. He bought land for them, generously supported their education at places like Oberlin College, and willed them a lot of money. No one knows why. He kept their mothers in bondage. The children became ardent abolitionists and served in the Union Army and Freedmen’s Bureau. After the War, several moved to Washington, D.C., where they fought for civil rights and women’s rights and raised their families to expect nothing less than equality. But as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow, their children disappeared into the white world.

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