Author: Daniel J. Sharfstein
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “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.
Defining their identities first as people of color and later as whites, these families provide a lens for understanding how people thought about and experienced race and how these ideas and experiences evolved-how the very meaning of black and white changed-over time. Cutting through centuries of myth, amnesia, and poisonous racial politics, The Invisible Line will change the way we talk about race, racism, and civil rights.”
Thoughts: 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.
Thank you to Trish from TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review this novel!