What defines race? Is it color? Is it DNA? Is it the labels you choose for yourself? In The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, author Daniel J. Sharfstein argues that it is becoming ever harder to view race neatly in black and white. He does so by looking at post-Civil War America, through three black families, two who chose to “pass” as white and one who moved north and suffered the hostile attitudes of surrounding whites. We spoke with Sharfstein about his research, his book, and why this conversation is more relevant than ever.
Sharfstein will be discussing these issues and more with Brent Staples in their upcoming conversation The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, on April 12.
What was the inspiration behind this book?
This book was the product of years of research, and a lot of choices. I’m telling the history of race in the United States through three families who relate in a singular way; People who started as “people of color” and wound up “white” over generations. The process of recovering these stories, why I specifically chose these three families, the issues and experiences that made me think it could be told through these families, these are all things that are not in the book but that I’m looking forward to talking about.
A large part of this story was recovering these family histories, and I think it’s important to understand the issue of moving from family history to larger histories. To move beyond the bare census data to telling a fully fleshed out narrative of people who lived 100, 200 years ago, and relating those family stories to big issues in American history.
How do the narratives of these families relate to current events?
There is absolutely room for current events. The book begins and ends with conversations I’ve had with living descendents of these families. in a way the book is designed to start conversations about what race means today, what kind of continuties there are with the past and how our feelings of race have changed over time.
How common was “passing” in post-Civil War America?
I spent a solid year just looking for as many families who experienced this kind of narrative as I could find, and I found a lot of them. In all kinds of histories of the American south, you find stories about families who crossed the color line in memoirs and court cases. For as long as America has had laws that distinguish blacks from whites, there have been people litigating their racial classification. Until the 1980s there were dozens of cases where juries had to determine whether people are white or black. There has been a revolution in the amount of historical and genealogical material available and searchable on the Internet, more people are learning that this is their story and more people are now posting about it in public forums, so we actually are at a point where we know more about this phenomenon than we ever have, and I think it’s time for us to think about what is means.
How did you research the book?
For the book I was doing the same kind of genealogical research that you would do, spendings hours on Ancestry.com with everyone else, so in a way this is an attempt to see what these kinds of sources can really tell us. It’s not just that we can learn when our great grandparents were born and died and where they lived, we are in a position to really begin to tell some fully fleshed out stories about what their lives were like and what they were like as people.