This article is posted in honor of Black History Month:
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 understood—and 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 families—the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls—beginning in the 17th century. Smithsonian magazine's T.A. Frail spoke with Sharfstein about his new book:
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 white—that 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 even when they knew those individuals were racially ambiguous—and that happened even while those communities supported slavery, segregation and very hard-line definitions of race.