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

I recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s very impressive The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of black Americans out of the south throughout the 20th century. And then I immediately read Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain, about Thomas Jefferson and the more than 600 slaves he owned throughout his life, and his treatment of them. (That review will post closer to the book’s publication date in mid-October.) This was a neat coincidence, and had me on a roll, thinking about slavery in the United States and the aftermath for freed slaves and their descendants; so I moved smoothly on to The Invisible Line, in which Daniel Sharfstein follows the transitions made by three families from being seen as black to being seen as white. It raises some interesting questions about the lines we draw and our tendency to think of race as having sharp corners and firm divides.

The mixed-race men and women Sharfstein tracks and studies in this book include “colored aristocrats” in Oberlin, Ohio and Washington, D.C. who hold public office, practice law, and exercise great influence on local politics. They also include back-woods residents of Appalachia whose lifestyles resemble those of hundreds of years ago, and Confederate soldiers and commissioned officers. Sharfstein follows these families to the present day, when their descendents represent a great range of professions, levels of education, and lifestyles. Some are more aware of their heritage than others, and they have different reactions to being accused of having “black blood.” Their experiences raise a number of interesting questions. It seems that it’s always been easy to view race as having cut-and-dried boundaries; but this book makes it equally clear that nothing could be further from accurate.

I liked that, like The Warmth of Other Suns, this book followed three individual stories – in this case, three families rather than three individuals, because it spans more than a lifetime. Again, this approach made the subject personal. It allowed Sharfstein to show the diversity of ways in which the process under discussion – the crossing of the color line – took place, and the diversity of ways the protagonists saw their own lives. The three families here represent different starting and finishing points in geography and in social and economic standing; and they represent different understandings of their own pasts. The book opens with a very powerful short scene involving a present-day white man who confesses to being a racist, and then discovers in his genealogy research that, what do you know, his own great-grandfather was a black man, a former slave.

My impression of The Invisible Line is that it includes solid research, and I thought it fairly and thoughtfully tackled this subject – one that has not been well-examined, or at least that I was not much aware of. I liked the personal element of the individual families. It made me think about some things I hadn’t considered before: how intertwined we all are, for one thing, and – not for the first time – how sad are certain elements of our national history. This was an excellent follow-up to my recent reading, and I recommend it if you’re interested in the subject matter.


Rating: 6 branches on the family tree.

4 Responses

  1. You are on a roll. I like the sound of this one. I’m curious about the Jefferson book as well.

  2. [...] to Ellison’s work. I haven’t read Invisible Man, but I’d like to. (It fits into a recent reading pattern of mine. And I’ve finally worked out Ellison’s Invisible Man vs. H.G. Wells’s, [...]

  3. As a lover of genealogy and history, I could not put this book down! Daniel Sharfstein does a masterful job of walking the reader through the lives, the times, and the journeys these three families took across the American landscape. Additionally, he gives a “flesh and blood” account of what laws and court decisions had on shaping this country’s attitudes on race and family. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to delve into America’s “hidden history”!

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