Monday, February 21, 2011

A New Book About 'Passing' -- The Invisible Line

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

About a month ago, I was contacted by TLC Book Tours to see if I'd like to review a new book about three American families who literally transformed themselves over the generations, from Black to White. Of course, I jumped at the chance. Introducing, The Invisible Line by Daniel J. Sharfstein.

Even though I promised myself I would only read fiction this year, I was not disappointed by this foray into nonfiction. The Invisible Line, while meticulously researched by Sharfstein -- an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University -- reads like a great piece of historic fiction. The story begins like this:

"Gideon Gibson rode alone through the perpetual twilight of the woods on a Sunday. In the thick forests of the South Carolina backcountry, light hit the ground scattered and split, filtered through leaves and pine needles as through a cathedral's stained glass."

And it only gets better from there. Essentially, Sharfstein traces the paths of three families; the wealthy landowning Gibsons in South Carolina, the Spencers, farmers in Eastern Kentucky, and the Walls, a middle class Black family in pre-Civil War Washington DC who 'becomes White' by the dawn of the 20th century.

The stories of all three families are equally fascinating ( complete with pictures to help you imagine and understand the transformations) but even more compelling is the completely hypocritical and self-serving history of the concept of race and color in this country. Reading the stories of these three families and the context in which they chose to 'cross over' makes the injustices of race that much more infuriating as we come to understand just how fluid the color line really was/is. The author himself explains it this way, " ...the category of 'black' has always functioned as little more than a marker of discrimination. W.E.B. Du Bois said it best: black means the 'person who must ride Jim Crow' in Gerogia."

I think we all joke that every American has a Black branch somewhere in their family tree, but after reading The Invisible Line, it seems like we should be checking the roots and not just the branches of every "White" family in America.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good read. I am a nonfiction junkie. I always appreciate your book suggestions, which is partly how I found my way back here.
I am still plugging along on Asha MirĂ³´s fiction book, but its based in real events. Like did you know that Ethiopia sent numerous orphans to Cuba to be educated? Check this out

Being a grad student, I do not have much chance to read things that are not journal articles. But I am going to read this book after I finish MirĂ³´s book.

Anonymous said...

Anon (11:12AM),

I did not completely understand the connection between this post and the Ethiopian students sent to Cuba? Two of these students or "orphans" included my maternal granduncle (who now lives back in Ethiopia) and a guy I once knew (who is a former Jesse Jackson aide and lives in D.C.). Under the Derg regime, many were sent to be educated to the Eastern bloc (U.S.S.R, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia...) and its communist allies (Cuba,...). Some defected to the West, others returned and a few stayed and assimilated in their host country... Migration of small and large human populations continues since it began when Homo erectus moved out of Africa across Eurasia about a million years ago... That is why race is a ridiculous concept (especially from a scientific viewpoint).


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I loved this book! And I agree it reads like historical fiction, because of his decision to focus on the three families. I was expecting to be bored by the family portions, but in fact the branches of those families were involved in so many important parts of history that I just found it riveting!

Anonymous said...

Second Anon, because historical fiction can be very educating. It can also address race, culture, and boundary crossing. I am sorry if I offended you. Not my intent. I am just learning about the events in Ethiopia through the book I am reading. And I agree. Race is a social construct not a biological one.

Anonymous said...

Anon (11:12AM and 7:00PM),

You did not offend me at all. I was just curious to know the link between the two. Yes, historical fictions can be very interesting ... and history can be even more interesting... Good luck with your graduate studies!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I love your comment about checking out the roots and not just the branches - how true!

I'm glad you agreed to take this foray into non-fiction. Thanks for being on the tour.