- The Invisible Line Between Black and White -- T.A. Frail / Smithsonian.com, February 18, 2011, ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Vanderbilt professorMessage 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2011View Source
The Invisible Line
Between Black and White
-- T.A. Frail / Smithsonian.com, February 18, 2011,~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Vanderbilt professor Daniel Sharfstein
discusses [with the Smithsonian] the historyof 'the imprecise-definition of "race" in America'
Smithsonian magazine's T.A. Frail spoke
with Daniel Sharfstein about his new book:
The Invisible Line:
Three American Families
... and 'the Secret Journey'
from "black" to White
-- by Daniel J. Sharfstein
For much of their history, Americans dealt with racial differences
by drawing a strict- line between White people and Black people.
But Daniel J. Sharfstein, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University,
notes that even while racial categories were rigidly-defined, they were also
flexibly-understoodand "the color-line" was more porous than it might seem.
His new book, The Invisible Line: Three American
Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White,
traces the experience of three familiesthe Gibsons,
Spencers and the Wallsbeginning in the 17th century.
People might 'assume' that those who crossed the line from
"black" to white had to "cover their tracks" pretty thoroughly,
which would certainly complicate any research into their backgrounds.
But does that assumption hold?
That's 'the typical account' of "passing" for
Whitethat it involved wholesale 'masquerade'.
But what I found was --- plenty of people became 'recognized' as White in
areas where their families were well known and had lived for generations,
and many could cross the line even when they looked different.
Many Southern communities accepted individuals [as White] even when
they knew those individuals were racially-ambiguousand that happened
even while those communities supported slavery, segregation
and very hard-line 'definitions' of "race".
So how did you find the three families you wrote about?
It was a long process.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I began by trying to find as many of these
families as I could in the historical record.
That involved reading a lot of histories and memoirs, and then
moving from there to dozens and dozens of court cases where
courts had to determine whether people were "black" or White,
and from there to property records and census
records and draft records and newspaper accounts.
And I developed a list of dozens, even hundreds of families
that I could be writing about, and then narrowed it down.
The three families that I chose represent the diversity of this process
of "crossing the color-line" and assimilating into White communities.
I chose families that lived in different parts of the South that became White
at different points in American history and from different social positions.
And how did those families come to know about their ancestry?
For many generations, members of these three families tried to forget that they had ever been~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
[of any part-Black lineage] and yet when I traced the families to the present and began
contacting the descendants almost everyone I contacted knew about their history.
It seems that the secrets of many generations are no match for the Internet.
In many families, people would talk about going to the library
and seeing that it had, say, a searchable 1850 census.
One woman described the experience of typing in her great-grandfather's
name, finding him, and then having to call over the librarian to go through
the handwritten enumeration form with hershe had to ask the librarian
what "MUL" meant, not knowing it meant he was Mulatto, or of Mixed-Race.
Every family seemed to have a story like this.
You note that an early 18th-century governor of South Carolina
granted the Gibsons, who clearly "had Black ancestry", permission
to stay in his colony because "they are not Negroes nor Slaves."
How did the governor reach such a nebulous conclusion?
It shows how fluid understandings of race can be.
The Gibsons were descended from some of the first 'free' people-of-color in Virginia,
and like many people-of-color in the early 18th century they left Virginia and moved
to North Carolina and then to South Carolina, where there was more available
land and the conditions of the frontier made it friendlier to people-of-color.
But when they arrived in South Carolina there was a lot of
anxiety about the presence of this large Mixed-Race family.
And it seems that the governor determined that they were skilled tradesmen,
that they had owned land in North Carolina and in Virginia and
I think most importantthat [held people captive as slaves].
So wealth and privilege trumped "race".~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
What really mattered is that the Gibsons were 'planters'.
And why was such flexibility necessary, both then and later?
Before the Civil War, the most important DIVIDING LINE in the South was
NOT between 'Black' and 'White', but between [the Enslaved] and [the Free].
Those categories track each other, but not perfectly, and what really mattered
above all to most people when they had to make a choice was that
[chattel] slavery as an institution "had" to be preserved.
But by the 19th century, there were enough people with
"some African ancestry" who were living as respectable
White peoplepeople who [held other people in captivity
as chattel-slaves] or supported [chattel] slaverythat to insist
on racial purity would actually disrupt the slaveholding South.
And this continued after the Civil War.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
With the rise of 'segregation' in the "Jim Crow" era,
separating the world by white and black required
a renewed commitment to these absolute
and hard-line understandings of "race".
But so many of the Whites who were 'fighting for segregation'
had descended from people-of-color that -- even as
laws became increasingly hard-line, there still was
a tremendous reluctance to enforce them broadly.
One of your subjects, Stephen Wall, crossed
from "black" to White to "black" to White
again, in the early 20th century.
How common was that crossing back and forth?
My sense is that this happened fairly often.
There were many stories of people who, for
example, were White at work and "black" at home.
There were plenty of examples of people who moved
away from their families to become White and for
one reason or another decided to come home.
Stephen Wall is interesting in part because at work
he was always known as ["colored"], but eventually,
at home everyone thought he was Irish.
How did that happen?
The family moved around a lot.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
For a while they were in Georgetown [the Washington,
D.C. neighborhood], surrounded by other Irish families.
Stephen Wall's granddaughter remembered her mother
telling stories that every time ["colored"] moved anywhere nearby,
Stephen Wall would pack the family up and find another place to live.
As you look at the United States
now, would you say the color-line is
disappearing, or even has disappeared?
I think the idea that race is blood-borne and grounded in science still~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
has a tremendous amount of power about how we think about ourselves.
Even as we understand how much racial categories were really just a
function of social pressures and political pressures and economic pressures,
we still can easily think about race as a function of swabbing our cheek,
looking at our DNA and seeing if we have some percentage of African DNA.
I think that race has remained a potent dividing line and
political tool, even in what we think of as a post-racial era.
What my book really works to do is help us
realize just how literally we are all related.
Randall Lee Gibson, 1870s, after his
election to Congress from Louisiana
Freda Spencer Goble, Jordan Spencer's
great-great-granddaughter in Paintsville in 2005.
Isabel with her siblings, Ethel Ada and Roscoe Orin
Wall in 1909, the year Isabel was expelled from the
first grade at the Brookland School for being "black"
The Oberlin Rescuers at Cuyahoga County Jail in 1859.
(T.J. Rice. Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
View More Photos »