Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: The Invisible Line by Daniel Sharfstein

Extensively researched and well-documented, this scholarly history examines a recognized but often over-looked phenomenon in American history and racial relations: crossing the color line. As the subtitle, Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White, suggests, the book uses as case studies three different families who crossed the color line at three different times in history and at three different Southern places. The end result for each of the families was quite different socio-economically with one family gaining significantly in power, while one descended sharply, and a third continued along at about the same subsistence level in which they had been living.

Told in a chronological fashion, the stories of the Gibson's, Wall's, and Spencer's personal family histories are woven through with the history, politics, and law of the times to create a picture of just how each family's racial designation changed over time. The narration is a curious mix of detached historical fact and a deliberate and immediate omniscient narration style more commonly found in fiction. The bulk of the story centers around the decades immediately preceding and then subsequent to the Civil War when the concept of race was established more firmly in legal terms than at any time prior or since. And while the story is of the families as wholes, the focus is rather tighter on certain family members who left more historical record. Sharfstein chooses to keep his historical narration chronological which means that chapters on each family alternate throughout the book. This was sometimes slightly confusing and difficult to follow, especially in the beginning before the major figures became quite as distinct and recognizable as they eventually did. Once the central figure in each family was better established, it was easier to follow the switches but then they became a bit distracting as just when the reader settles into one family's narrative, the chapter break appeared to follow a different family's narrative.

Despite the structural difficulties, there is much interesting information contained here. I had always assumed from classes and previous mentions in books that the color line was fairly rigid and that "passing" was a difficult and fraught endeavor. While it was certainly fraught given the laws on the books about what percentage of blood, even the infamous "one drop," determined race, the line was never as uniformly rigid as many history books make it out to be. In fact, it turns out that the color line was actually rather porous. And that rather than being a furtive, quick event, crossing the line could, in some cases, be more of a gradual drift that not only did no one question but in which entire communities were complicit.

I found the book to be a rather dense read when it delved into racial legalities and political situations but strangely descriptively fictional feeling when discussing the lives of these very real people. There are several instances of repetition of the historical facts made all the more obvious by their similar wording within the different family's chapters. In spite of the structural flaws and dichotomous narrative technique, there was much good, very detailed information to be found here. This book could easily be required reading for a college history class focused on race in the South, being generally more readable than many traditional history books. It is certainly an interesting entry toward a more complete understanding of race and the US, shining a light on a fascinating phenomenon that was for so long only whispered of, if even that.

For more information about Daniel Sharfstein visit his webpage and his Vanderbilt faculty page.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. This sounds interesting. I've read memoirs and fiction about crossing the color line, but not a history about it.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review -- I'm not normally a regular reader of non-fiction but this one has piqued my interest and your review only confirmed I should give this a try!

  3. I'm glad that you found this one interesting in spite of the flaws. I always assumed the color line was pretty solid but clearly I was wrong about that.

    Thanks for being on this tour.

  4. Very interesting review of a book. I often find that in spite book flaws, the story or the characters or what I carry away from reading it make it very worthwhile.


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