While going to a hockey game, my 7-year-old son, N, asked, “Do you think it’s a bad idea to make black people sit in the back of the bus?” My son often asks out-of-the-blue questions, therefore, this one didn’t surprise me. As a part of their Black History lesson, my son’s class has been studying the Civil Rights Movement.
I proceeded to expand on the lessons he had learned in school. I explained Jim Crow and told him how many brave men and women fought for the equal rights that he enjoys today. I explained that despite all of the progress we’ve made, people of different races don’t get along sometimes and that race continues to be a complex issue in America.
The Invisible Line – Three American Families and Their Journey from Black to White by Daniel J. Sharfstein goes deeper to address theses complexities. Sharfstein follows three families, from the Revolutionary Era up to the Civil Rights Movement, as they straddle the color line and change their racial identities from black to white.
I must admit that I was a bit leary about reading the book when I discovered that Sharfstein was a law professor. I expected a self-serving tome that was as interesting as a legal brief. I was surprised to find that the book was easy to read and quite engaging. I was able to breeze through the entire 396-pages in just a few days. I like how Sharfstein took reams of scholarly research and turned them into compelling stories of the human spirit.
In the book, Shafstein goes in great detail about the three families’ lives:
- The Gibsons – Wealthy South Carolina Landowners who became white and ascended the ranks of the Southern elite.
- The Spencers – Eastern Kentucky farmers who joined an isolated Appalachian community in the 1840s (Even though Spencer was visibly dark-skinned, his new community decided he could be white).
- The Walls – Fixtures of the rising black middle class in Post-Civil War Washington, D.C., who gave up everything to become white at the dawn of the 20th century.
Of these stories, I was most compelled by the The Walls. They trace their roots to Stephen Wall, a wealthy plantation owner who had children with three of his slaves. Walls freed his children and sent them to be raised by radical Quaker abolitionists. He bought his children land, paid for their education, and gave them large sums of money. Ironically, the children grew up to be ardent abolitionist who fought against people like their father. Unfortunately, the Walls’ children didn’t have the same fire in their bellies. As Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow, they disappeared into the white world thus losing all of the stature that their parents had built up.
The invisible line is a must-read for anyone interested in American history and race-relations. It will definitely make you see that things aren’t always black and white.