A conversation with Daniel J. Sharfstein (Author of “The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White”)

A conversation with Daniel J. Sharfstein (Author of  The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White)

The Penguin Press
January 2011

Lauren Hodapp, Senior Publicist
The Penguin Press

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University

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.

What is “race” in America?

This is a question that has never had a single answer.  The idea that human beings can be classified, ordered, and assigned superior and inferior status is much older than this country.  In America racial classifications were initially justified on religious grounds, but they evolved into something biological, transmitted through blood from one generation to the next.  At the same time, race was also about how people acted and the rights that they exercised.  During slavery and Jim Crow, each state had its own rules for what made someone white and what made someone black.  Some people who were black in North Carolina, for instance, were white in South Carolina.  Even when there seemed to be some public consensus about what race was, it has always meant something different behind closed doors. 

Once we understand that African Americans were continually crossing the color line and establishing themselves as white, we have to rethink what the categories of “black” and “white” mean.  This is a history that has touched the lives of millions of Americans.  Biology—“black blood”—cannot be what makes a person black.  After all, plenty of white people have black blood, too.  In The Invisible Line I try to strip away centuries of shifting justifications for race and suggest instead that the category of “black” has always functioned as little more than a marker of discrimination.  W. E. B. Du Bois said it best: black means the “person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.”

THE INVISIBLE LINE shares the stories of three families over two centuries.  How did you select these particular families?

I chose to focus on the Gibsons, Spencers, and Walls because they epitomize how individuals and families changed racial identities from black to white in different periods of American history and in different parts of the South.  They challenge our conventional wisdom about racial identity and the color line.  I initially researched hundreds of families after years of looking through court cases, government records, histories and other scholarly works, newspaper accounts, memoirs, and family papers from manuscript collections in eighteen states and the District of Columbia. I wound up selecting the Gibsons, Spencers, and Walls because they were typical, but also extraordinary.  An incredible wealth of material about each family has survived the centuries—letters, trial testimony, speeches, wills, property and census records, and more.  Because of this information, I was able to go beyond just establishing the fact that people migrated across the color line and could explore why they did and what effects the migration had on their lives and on the lives of their descendants.

The fluidity with which many of your subjects approach race seems, in many ways, more sophisticated than the way we envision race today. Why?

Much of what we take for granted about race and its history are actually relatively recent developments.  For example, the “one-drop rule,” or the idea that any African ancestry makes a person black, was not the law of Southern states until the 1910s and 1920s.  Before that, states used a patchwork of fractional rules—one-fourth African “blood” made a person black, one-eighth, etc.  These rules, and the ways that courts interpreted them, reflected a reality in which people were constantly crossing the color line.  If the line were policed too strictly, then virtually no one would be safe from reclassification.  And people knew it.  Many scholars today talk about race as a “social construction,” but you can find eerily similar language from plain folks in small Southern towns one hundred years ago.

What did this mean for individuals and families in the 19th century?

White communities often knew that people were racially mixed and let them in anyway. The typical accounts of “passing for white” involve wholesale masquerade—abandoning family and moving far away, assuming a new name and identity, and the ever present fear of being found out.  But people could become white in areas where their families had lived for generations, and many could become white even when they looked different.  There was such a thing as a “dark white man.”  But for Southern communities, acceptance of individuals did not translate into tolerance on a larger scale.  In fact, some of the very communities that allowed people of color to assimilate supported slavery, segregation, and even lynching.  There was a collective denial, a capacity for living with intense contradiction that is hard for many of us to grasp today.

What did you discover in your research that particularly surprised you?

Becoming white was not necessarily an upwardly mobile act.  In fact, it could be spectacularly downwardly mobile, especially for the “Negro aristocracy” of the late nineteenth century.  Hundreds—including O.S.B. Wall’s children—traded in lives of distinction and leadership for anonymity and often poverty.  It is easy to think that crossing the color line was a perfectly rational act for people who wanted better opportunities for themselves and their children, but the fact that people would go to great lengths to become white even when it was against their interest shows just how poisonous racism has been in the United States.

Henry Louis Gates and the African American Studies department at Harvard has become a legendary source of fresh thinking about race. When you were studying with Gates was there a sense that he and the students were creating a new vision of race?

Absolutely.  My first year as a student in the department was Gates’s first year at Harvard.  He had come with a mission to reinvent the field.  The seminar I took with him that fall was not only an intense introduction to a series of extraordinary texts, but also a class devoted to rethinking what African American Studies should be and making a case for its centrality to our understanding of the American experience.  It was a very exciting time to be at Harvard, and the discussions we had nearly twenty years ago continue to influence me and my work.

How did your own experiences with and perceptions of race influence your work?

My interest in African American history developed as a child listening to stories about my father’s civil rights activism in the early 1960s—the time as an undergraduate he met Martin Luther King, Jr., his experience attending the [1963] March on Washington.  I also grew up with stories about my grandparents’ experience as the children of Eastern European immigrants living in a racially integrated neighborhood in northwest Baltimore.  They learned English from their black neighbors—it was their first exposure to what it meant to be American.

As a college student in 1993, I volunteered on a voter education project in South Africa before the country’s first free elections.  Our office was in a building with two elevators that were still marked “Europeans Only” and “Non-Europeans and Goods.”  My colleagues were all longtime anti-apartheid activists.  The government had classified them as “African,” they said, except for one, who was “Coloured” or mixed-race.  But, she explained, she was not mixed at all—she would have been classified “African,” except for the fact that her father had been a police officer.  In the 1950s an official responsible for classifying the people in her neighborhood decided to reward her father’s service by listing him as “Coloured.”  As a result of that one simple act—one word—she had led a very different life from her colleagues.  She had grown up in a different kind of township, went to different schools, and only spoke English and Afrikaans.  It was a revelation to me that something that seemed as natural and inevitable as race could bend because of personal relationships, community ties, and individual whim.  I came back to the U.S. wondering if the same kinds of things had happened here, and for the first time, I began reading legal cases from the Jim Crow South in which judges and juries had to determine whether someone was white or black.  The cases presented fascinating portraits of communities that were committed to segregation and white supremacy even as they willed themselves to forget their own ambiguous roots.

 How did your law background impact your understanding of the stories, journals, and documents that you encountered while researching THE INVISIBLE LINE?

 Dozens of court cases have involved people crossing the color line and assimilating into white communities—they are some of the best sources of material on the subject—so having experience working with legal documents really helps in making sense of this history.  From soon after the Revolution until well into the twentieth century, just about every law that distinguished white from black provided occasions where courts were forced to determine someone’s race.  Along with marriage prohibitions and segregated schools and trains, there were different tax rates, gun ownership rules, restrictions on who could testify in court, even libel penalties for falsely accusing someone of being black.  Race in America has always involved a lot of rules, and my legal training has enabled me to recognize both the power of law and its limitations.

Which of the individuals you encountered do you feel most affinity for and why?

I really enjoyed getting to know O.S.B. Wall (1825-1891), the son of a plantation owner and his slave, who was freed and sent north to become educated and learn a trade.  He began as a shoemaker and then became a radical abolitionist, Union Army officer, and eventually a politically active lawyer in Washington, D.C.  He was able to preserve his sense of honor and idealism in terrible times both before and after the Civil War.  Even when he was a humble shoemaker, he was never intimidated by powerful people.  And he had a great sense of humor.

The families that you profile span 200 years of American history. What have we previously overlooked in this time span? 

 We have overlooked one of the great mass migrations in American history: the journey from black to white.  It is a migration that affected large numbers of families and communities.  It contradicted and reinforced slavery and segregation.  It forced people to consider what race means, and changed how they thought about race.  The migration occurred alongside other mass movements in our history—the settlement of North America, our expansion west, the rise of great cities, new waves of immigration, and the industrialization of even our most isolated areas.  In a world defined by change, race could never be a static concept.  Americans have always been in motion and have continually reinvented themselves.  The migration from black to white is a part of this dynamic tradition.

More broadly, we have overlooked the vexed relationship between liberty and equality in our nation’s history.  The prospect of freedom for African Americans has been one of the major forces in the evolution of racism in the United States.  In colonial Virginia, African Americans’ quest for freedom gave rise to black codes.  Even as large numbers of African Americans were being freed during the Revolutionary Era, ideas that blacks were biologically inferior gained widespread currency.  In the decade before the Civil War, white Southerners countered Northern arguments against slavery with race-based justifications for the institution that survived its demise.  After the Civil War, black freedom took root alongside modern forms of racism that persist to this day.  Each advance in liberty gave way to potent new forms of inequality.  Every time the struggle seemed over, it had only begun again.

What about today?

The idea that race is blood-borne and grounded in science still has incredible power over how we think about ourselves and order our worlds.  Even in our “post-racial” era, it is very easy for whites to tune out issues involving African Americans or to regard blacks as fundamentally different from—even opposed to—themselves.  Race remains a potent dividing line and political tool.  I hope to shatter the notion that this line exists and help us to realize that we are all related, that the African American experience is absolutely central to the American experience generally, and that our conventional understanding of racial difference and the persistent legacy of racism are shaped in no small part by the secret history that The Invisible Line explores.

Tags: , ,