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

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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, Dani 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.


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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, Dani 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.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    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 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 meticulous research shines in this narrative cum nonfiction novel. He presents the Gibsons, the Walls and the Spencers in such a way that they become more than one-dimensional characters on the page and leap back into life. The addition of pictures make the stories even more personal, and the reader soon questions what it means to be white. The most surprising, and best, aspects of The Invisible Line is the crystal clear understanding of Reconstruction that is a result of each family's struggle to acclimate to life after the Civil War. Most history books tend to gloss over Reconstruction without detailing exactly what happened - how blacks gained political power and seats in state governments and in Washington, only to have it all taken away a little more than ten years after the war's end. These details added a fuller comprehension of the truly perilous times that existed during the post-Civil War era. The Invisible Line is a wonderful commentary on how messed up this country is about race. The fact that the government actually created a legal definition of what it means to be black is indicative of an overarching issue with appearances over substance. It is ironic that this country would be willing to kill over something like the color of one's skin but conveniently ignore when one family opts to cross the race line and become white. This hypocrisy is sickening and shows that we have a long way to go before race becomes a non-issue. Well-researched and extremely well-written, The Invisible Line is one step in the process, as it shares the intricate steps families had to take in order to overcome prejudice and hatred.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Meg

    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 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 free African Americans pre-Civil-War, something we don't hear a lot about. The book was really well written and was told like a family story which included history, rather than a history which included stories. There was an amazing story about a free black man in Ohio getting captured and a bunch of white and black neighbors who went together to the jail to rescue him. Very inspiring. I also loved the section about the trial in Appalachia where a man sued another man for slandering him by calling him a Negro - the testimony from his hometown folks was priceless. Who knew the law could be so funny? Parts of the middle section dragged for me (for example, I have zero interest in tactical descriptions of Civil War battles, a section which was mercifully brief). It was also confusing at times to follow the different characters from three different families; I felt like it wasn't until about 1/2 or 2/3 of the way through the book that I really got the different families straight in my head. Also, this book was REALLY focused on men. I get that that's who we have more historical information about, but still, it really felt like the women were on the sidelines.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin

    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 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 of three families and their different journeys across the color line(and sometimes back again). He amply demonstrates the flexibility inherent in early American social systems and the solidification of race constructs after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Along the way he tells a wonderful story and he tells it well. Writing with precision and literary verve, he lays out the stories of these families and through them we are able to see and contextualize our complex history and the ways we've learned to live with each other. Mr. Sharfstein's fascinating and readable history reminds us that in many ways we are who we say are and much of who we can get away with saying we are is filtered through class and community. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in well-written social history of all kinds.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    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 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 theoretical underpinnings of this book, it is eminently readable: free of academic obscurantism without sacrificing its critical authority. For those of you who prefer to pick up history from the human angle in the form of stories about memorable characters, this book is perfect: the saga of the three families selected, The Gibsons, The Spencers, and The Walls, turned out to be absolutely absorbing. In clear and compelling prose, this book tells a story that should not be missed. Rating: 4.5/5

  5. 4 out of 5

    Becky J

    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. 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. Comparing the families' experiences during the same events is so interesting - I only wish there could have been more primary source material from the people described but as the author points out, the nature of changing one's race in America was that the experience had to remain secret, and usually the generation immediately after the change had no idea.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Geoffrey Lawson

    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!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Anson Cassel Mills

    Sharfstein is a law professor who has done an excellent job of researching and writing about three extended families that “made the journey from black to white at different points in American history.” What I will take away from this book is an awareness that, in determining racial classification, reputation—that is, whether someone was considered to be white or non-white by his peers—seems to have been more important to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than skin color per se. A numbe Sharfstein is a law professor who has done an excellent job of researching and writing about three extended families that “made the journey from black to white at different points in American history.” What I will take away from this book is an awareness that, in determining racial classification, reputation—that is, whether someone was considered to be white or non-white by his peers—seems to have been more important to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than skin color per se. A number of commentators have called this work “novelistic,” intending that description as a compliment. My own preference would have been for a considerably shorter and less flashy work, even though I know such a strategy would have resulted in many fewer books being sold. Frankly, most of the individuals described herein are neither notable nor noble, and Sharfstein’s flamboyant writing helps him paper over the reality that most of his subjects are simply mediocrities muddling through the racial shibboleths of their respective eras.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I went a little rogue on this book and read each family's history as a unit, jumping past the other families' chapters, instead of reading it straight through in page number order. My reason for this was that by the middle of the first chapter of the Spencer story, which followed the first chapter for each of the other families, I was already a little muddled with names and stories. Skipping around the book in order to read each family's history straight through, then moving to the next family, I went a little rogue on this book and read each family's history as a unit, jumping past the other families' chapters, instead of reading it straight through in page number order. My reason for this was that by the middle of the first chapter of the Spencer story, which followed the first chapter for each of the other families, I was already a little muddled with names and stories. Skipping around the book in order to read each family's history straight through, then moving to the next family, and finishing with them all together in the epilogue, worked out just fine in terms of enjoyment, and much better in terms of following and remembering the stories. The Wall and Spencer family stories were fascinating, and everything that I had hoped for when I picked up this book - enough said. The Gibson family story, however, I found very disappointing. Things started off very strong with Gideon Gibson and his "journey from black to white", as it is often called in this book. It was fascinating and thought-provoking, and I wish it had stopped there. (view spoiler)[Unfortunately it continued on to Gideon Gibson's descendants, focusing primarily on Randall Lee Gibson and Hart Gibson. By this generation (Civil War era) the Gibsons are white, in that they think of themselves as totally white and everyone around them does too. Their whiteness is only questioned once, and it is treated by the Gibsons and everyone else as an absurd notion, one that is so preposterous that they barely respond. This means that readers are reading many chapters of what are essentially mini biographies of white racist Southerners - not what I signed up for. And while it's true that readers are well aware of the irony of the situation, that this racist, anti-black family would have been considered black by its own rules of "purity", Randall Lee and Hart and their children and grandchildren did not know it. The irony is lost on them, so why oh why was the vast majority of the Gibson story about them? Better to have addressed their generations in just one chapter and then moved into the generations that discovered that their family had passed from black to white. (hide spoiler)]

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    As someone who researched and wrote a biography of my 3-great grandfather, I appreciate this well-researched book. I was interested to learn how life in the remote 'west' of the late 18th and early 19th century made it easier for people to "pass" and integrate into the community. I recently discovered, through DNA testing, that I have a small amount of West African heritage. The family story was that we had Native American blood. I'm thinking now that it was easier to pass as a Native American t As someone who researched and wrote a biography of my 3-great grandfather, I appreciate this well-researched book. I was interested to learn how life in the remote 'west' of the late 18th and early 19th century made it easier for people to "pass" and integrate into the community. I recently discovered, through DNA testing, that I have a small amount of West African heritage. The family story was that we had Native American blood. I'm thinking now that it was easier to pass as a Native American than a person of African descent, and this may be how the Native American story began. I'm nearly certain I know which of my maternal grandparents this West African DNA came from, but it's a coin-toss as far as which great-grandparent. Both have "Native American" heritage, as the story goes. I'd love to know my family's story.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

    This was definitely an in-depth history of three families, but it wasn't really much else. From the subtitle and the reviews and even the cover art, I expected there to be more, I don't know, sociological analysis? I read to the end, hoping I might find it there...but no, not really. It's really well researched and all; just not what I was expecting.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sharon G

    I highly recommend this book if you want a fresh perspective on race in America through the republic's history.

  13. 5 out of 5

    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 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 Confederacy in the Civil War. The Spencers were subsistence farmers in the rugged hill country of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Kentucky. Even with darker skin than most of their neighbors, they were accepted as being “white.” The Walls were part of the thriving black middle class, prospering in Washington D.C. after the Civil War. Their black heritage was helpful in their social rise, but after generations in which their skin tone grew lighter and they began to pass as white, rumors of their racial heritage worked against them. Sharfstein shows clearly how the arguments for and against slavery were simmering long before the Civil War. Several of the Gibson brothers from their southern plantation roots in Louisiana attended the northern college of Yale in the 1850s. There they were exposed to numerous debates about the pros and cons of slavery. When settlers couldn’t be easily classified as belonging to one race or another, many would concoct ruses to explain their swarthy complexion. Some called themselves “black Dutch” or “East Indian.” Some claimed to be Croatian, Turks or Guineas. And still others used terms like “pure-blooded Carthaginians” Phoenicians, North African Berbers or Sephardic Jews. The differences between life in the North and South during pre-Civil War times are striking. Oberlin Collegiate Institute, in Ohio, opened in 1832 to both male and female students. By 1835 the college was open to persons of color, as well. When a slave owner in Kentucky attempted to pursue a runaway slave into Ohio, the abolitionists prevented him from doing so, even though the Fugitive Slave Act had given the slave owner the legal authority to do it. Sharfstein paints a vivid picture to the chase, the capture and the freeing of the fugitive slave. Sharfstein takes the dry facts of history and blends them into a compelling narrative which is easy to read and vividly describes the events taking place. Since he tells the story chronologically, he jumps from family to family making it a little difficult to remember the characters and their roles in each family. I may go back and read the book again tracking each family at a time. Well-researched and well-written, visiting American history through the lives of these three families was in itself fascinating. The added story of racial identities and perceptions made the book even more interesting. Reading this book left me hopeful that one of these days we will get beyond judging people based on their skin color and judge them solely on who they are. We get a step closer every day.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tanya

    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. 5/6/11 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 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. 5/6/11 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 scholarship of race in America, I found the book itself a bit sporadic. The strongest chapters were those dealing with actual challenges to someone's "whiteness" - Isabel Wall's expulsion from white Brookland public school, and the defamation suit filed by George Spencer when he was called a negro. But multiple times I felt Sharfstein wandered away from his thesis and become bogged down in relating biographies of assorted family members. Because the book moves in chronological order, the jumping from family to family was immediately confusing, and at times disrupted the flow of his argument. He also put so much emphasis on the black lines in these families' pedigrees that he seemed to discount others - is it so surprising that a child does not identify himself as black when he has 7 white great-grandparents? Is it really "crossing the color line" when one's negro blood is "bleached out" by Caucasian DNA? The nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America were all about assimilation - so many people within generations were just Americans, and hardly knew their own ancestry. Is it so surprising that those with negro blood also "melted" into that pot? Still, his emphasis is important because it casts light on an overlooked aspect of race. For me the most important insight gained from The Invisible Line was that racial purity became more important AFTER emancipation, and even more crucial in the early 20th century. As the institutions that preserved social separation of the races (particularly slavery) were dismantled, white communities became ever more vigilant in their efforts to preserve their perceived purity and superiority. Yet at the same time, I never realized how many communities chose to accept people of unsure racial background as white simply because it preserved peaceful living. In the end I am more curious than ever about my own family line that traces back to early 19th century Virginia and Kentucky. Perhaps I have some unknown negro blood running in my Swedish/English veins. Honestly, I think that would be really fascinating!

  15. 4 out of 5

    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 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 classifications were enacted often by legislators, but local standards and classifications varied widely to fit local needs and customs. This space allowed some to become white. Communities would invent races to explain why some of their neighbors, friends and family were dark-skinned. There were many claims of Indian and Portuguese blood or stories of stranded Spanish explorers to justify why a white person might be darker-skinned than someone already defined as black. Sharfstein states it best when describing OSB Wall’s thoughts on the reality of relations between blacks and whites: “...the law was neither the Constitution nor the legislature’s enactments. It was how people lived every day.” The three families followed by Sharstein seem to cover the spectrum of families that might make the transition from black to white. The Gibsons are a leading family in the southern aristocracy, staunchly Confederate, but descended from a free black man from South Carolina. The Spencers are farmers in the mountains of rural Kentucky, respected enough by friends and neighbors that their race is never questioned. The Walls are descended from a white slave owner that frees the children he has with his slaves, while at the same time leaving the mothers in slavery. These stories span from the 1760s to the present day, giving The Invisible Line the feel of an American epic. Luckily, the author has helpfully included family trees for all three families--a great relief, as you will find yourself flipping back to them often. The greatest triumph of The Invisible Line is that it shows not only why crossing the color line was seen as necessary by some, but it also shows how the crossing was possible. There are a great number of quotes from primary sources (such as letters, newspapers and court records) that the author deftly uses to illustrate how people reacted to racial questions in the context of their own time. With The Invisible Line, Sharfstein has given insight into an often overlooked aspect of American history.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Amy Kannel

    I'd recommend this book--but I would emphatically NOT recommend the audio version. First, the narrator is awful. I'm pretty sure his voice is one used for automated recordings--the way he reads is so disjointed (and over-enunciated) that all I could think about is that automated voice, like every word had been recorded separately. I got used to it by the end (or maybe he improved), but it was incredibly distracting. Second, I don't think the subject matter lends itself well to an audiobook. I wa I'd recommend this book--but I would emphatically NOT recommend the audio version. First, the narrator is awful. I'm pretty sure his voice is one used for automated recordings--the way he reads is so disjointed (and over-enunciated) that all I could think about is that automated voice, like every word had been recorded separately. I got used to it by the end (or maybe he improved), but it was incredibly distracting. Second, I don't think the subject matter lends itself well to an audiobook. I wanted to see photos of the main characters, which I think are included in the print version, and there are so many generations of the three families that it's hard to remember who's who--it would have been helpful to be able to flip back and forth and even reference family trees (I don't know if those are included in the print version, but they should be). That said, it was still a fascinating book. The history of race in America is sickening, maddening, unbelievable. Hearing it laid out in the personal history of families who "crossed the color line," better understanding the abuses black families suffered, was eye-opening. The irony is at times overwhelming--I so wished the racist Louisiana senator who had black ancestors would get his comeuppance at the end, but sadly, he did not seem to realize before he died how insane his views were in light of his own bloodlines. I found myself absolutely appalled as I listened, again and again--but I think the author did a great job of not sensationalizing, just bringing the characters to life. His comprehensive research and engaging storytelling illuminated the complex issues, blind and illogical thinking, and societal/cultural norms that contributed to the poisonous racial atmosphere in the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Doris

    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 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 necessarily separate. This book details that this line is not immovable, and shows how many times people look the other way so as not to have to think too hard about their own place in society, knowing that a labeling of one could relabel all. I also though it very interesting to see the history of black Americans in a truthful, non-abrasive way, although like other reviewers, I could have enjoyed it more with less battle information. The main distraction for me was that the story switched back and forth between families, and although it was written like a genealogy, it did not read like one. I would have enjoyed it more if some of the photos had been grouped within the family they related to, and if the family tree had been with the photos. I especially liked the way the story started, with one man's search for his family, thinking his father was one person, then finding out not only his father's real name, but that his father was black, not white, as he had supposed. I would have enjoyed hearing more about the women, and how they were integral to the society, but like many histories, the women were mostly ignored. For that, and because this story, although labeled as non-fiction, obviously had the dialogue in many places made up (the author admitted as such), I only rated this a 4.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    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 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 from African Americans (or Africans, in some cases). It also talked about how mixed race people were way more common than we are led to believe. I feel like when slavery and segregation are talked about, it's always in terms of black and white (literally!). But this book tells how there were so many people that were clearly not just one or the other, and situations that arose because of that, including mixed race people who looked whiter sitting in or using the "blacks only" areas and being given a hard time because white people thought they were being subversive, or spouses who filed for divorce because they discovered that their spouse had a black parent or grandparent. He discussed lawsuits that were brought when white people discovered that someone they had previously assumed was "white" turned out to be "black". I thought that was really interesting, and I'd actually like to read more about that.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

    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 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 attitudes, laws, and daily life the most interesting. While I understood that racial lines are rather arbitrary, I never realized the extent to which the lines were mutable and could be crossed. I found the story of the Spencers, landowners in Appalachian Kentucky to be most interesting. I had a friend who came from "mountain folk" and she commented how rarely anything came up about her being black so much as how many generations back her family had been on the mountain. In the community all around the Spencers, there are a number of folks considered "dark white", many claiming Native American, Spanish, or Portuguese blood. Perhaps this was true in some cases, but it didn't matter much in terms of their involvement in the community. In the end, I just couldn't make it more than 80% through this one. I simply stopped caring.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Debra

    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 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 blurry. I don't know how to explain the evil that has been done in the name of keeping one group of people above another. What I do know is that this book does a terrific job of illuminating how random that line is/was for three families. To me, the book reads like a good novel - or maybe I just like history and that's the closest analogue I can come up with for people who may NOT like to read history. And the fact that I know one of the members of one family included in this history, makes this read all the more fascinating for me. If you've ever read "The Sweeter the Juice" this book covers the same territory, but as chronicled by someone not in the families. I recommend this highly. The only thing keeping it from 5 stars is that there are chunks of family history glossed over that I'd love to know more about!

  21. 4 out of 5

    Magill

    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 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 many other families, whose histories are not known to us (or maybe even to their own descendents today), but who also had to navigate through those perilous times, finding a way to provide for their family's immediate survival and for their future. The book tells the stories of the families and the events leading towards the crossing of the colour line but does not delve deeply into the personal/social/community implications of that. It does, however, provide an excellent background on how that drift over the colour line was supported or driven by the definitions of white and black, and the relative porousness of that line. It also shows just how much was at stake for men and women with respect to education, advancement and plain human dignity.

  22. 4 out of 5

    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 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, the last grandson becoming an early 20th c. anthropological ""expert"" on race at his family's Field Museum in Chicago); the Spencers, who moved into Johnson County Kentucky, where frontier neighbors glad for more hands were happy to recognize them, bizarrely, as ""Portuguese Huguenots"" until a branch of the clan ventured out into a new valley in the 1920s and sparked a slander suit with rivals; and the Walls, Oberlin-educated black professionals in Washington D.C. who, in the betrayal of Reconstruction, deliberately abandoned being pillars of black middle class society to become blue-collar marginalized whites.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Aron Wagner

    The detail with which Sharfstein is able to tell these family histories, based on the collected puzzle-pieces of census information, court documents, and newspaper clippings, is remarkable. And watching each successive generation meticulously construct-- and deconstruct-- racial identities through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the 20th Century was frankly fascinating. My favorite sections followed OSB Wall as he helped rescue an escaped-and-recaptured slave in Ohio, and later The detail with which Sharfstein is able to tell these family histories, based on the collected puzzle-pieces of census information, court documents, and newspaper clippings, is remarkable. And watching each successive generation meticulously construct-- and deconstruct-- racial identities through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the 20th Century was frankly fascinating. My favorite sections followed OSB Wall as he helped rescue an escaped-and-recaptured slave in Ohio, and later we meet his blonde-blue-eyed granddaughter who was denied entry into a white primary school. Society was continually being forced to wrestle with the arbitrary nature of the color line, and this 5 year old was caught in the crossfire. Reader be warned-- the disappointed promise of Reconstruction is as depressing here as ever. And the way that Jim Crow pushed people to abandon family bonds in an attempt at "whiteness" can be nauseating. Nor is it a beach read. They're great stories, but they are written by an academic, so be ready for that.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Debbi

    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 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 conversely, often pursued the "one drop rule" out of pure spitefulness). Additionally, there was a lot of historical information that I either never learned in school or forgot since I could not fathom so much bigotry and racism. This can be a difficult book to follow since it jumps between the three family lines, but it is worth the effort. It helps to pay attention to the genealogy charts and refer to them often until the names become more familiar.

  25. 4 out of 5

    drowningmermaid

    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 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 effect the listener might get when they hear all the racist and anti-miscegenation things being said by a person with a teensy trace of black ancestry. Which is not odd. They were a wealthy, white, Southern family who were not even aware of the greater-than-great grandpappy who was black, and who never found out about their ancestry.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Fraser Sherman

    Sharfstein's thesis is that while America likes to draw sharp dividing lines between black-and-white, in practice the boundary was often flexible, which made drawing the sharp line easier (someone accepted in the community as white might get a free pass if the issue came up). His examples are three mixed-race families who crossed the line at varying points. The Gibsons (one ancestor was a free man of color married to a white woman) were wealthy enough to jump to white by the early 1800s; Orindat Sharfstein's thesis is that while America likes to draw sharp dividing lines between black-and-white, in practice the boundary was often flexible, which made drawing the sharp line easier (someone accepted in the community as white might get a free pass if the issue came up). His examples are three mixed-race families who crossed the line at varying points. The Gibsons (one ancestor was a free man of color married to a white woman) were wealthy enough to jump to white by the early 1800s; Orindatus Wall was a mixed-race slave who became an active abolitionist and black activist, but whose kids later moved away and remade themselves as white; the Spencers lived in the Kentucky backwoods, where they were enmeshed enough in the community people just turned a blind eye. An interesting look at how subjective "race" can get.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    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 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 when the Jim Crow era's laws became too brutal. I highly recommend this book and will be "pushing it" on my partner!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dee Halzack

    This was absolutely fascinating. Not because of what the families did, or how they did it, but because of the insight into the history of race relations in this country. I highly recommend it. E.g., in Kentucky it was possible for black children to be taken away from their families on the grounds that the families couldn't care for them. The children would then be placed with white farmers as unpaid apprentices. Basically another form of slavery, by a different name. The book painted the clearest This was absolutely fascinating. Not because of what the families did, or how they did it, but because of the insight into the history of race relations in this country. I highly recommend it. E.g., in Kentucky it was possible for black children to be taken away from their families on the grounds that the families couldn't care for them. The children would then be placed with white farmers as unpaid apprentices. Basically another form of slavery, by a different name. The book painted the clearest picture of any I've run across of how rights were lost when Reconstruction ended and former Confederates took control in the South again.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Cheryl

    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 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 suggesting it to family and friends.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kari

    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 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 some of the stories felt disjointed but it wasn't enough to seriously detract from the book.

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