Before Daniel J. Sharfstein's senior year at Harvard, he spent the summer of 1993 in South Africa as a volunteer for a voter education project. There, one of his fellow workers told him she had been categorized as "colored," or mixed-race, because a constable doing the classification appreciated her father's service as a police officer.
"As a result of that one simple act, she had led a very different life from her colleagues," recalls Sharfstein, now associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "That was a revelation to me, that something that could seem as natural and inevitable as race could bend because of a personal relationship or community ties or even just individual whim."
He returned to the United States wondering whether the same kind of thing had happened here.
Sharfstein's South African experience, followed by a stint as a journalist, Yale Law School and years of archival research and interviews, led to The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White. The book interweaves the story of three families with African ancestry — the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls — who, over time and in different ways, became identified as white. The color line in America, Sharfstein learned, has been surprisingly permeable. The AARP Bulletin talked to Sharfstein by phone.
Q. Throughout American history, how important was physical appearance in defining whiteness?
A. To a certain degree it was important. We have to remember that, for a long time, the United States was a rural society and almost everybody worked outside. There was a really broad range of complexions that could be considered white.
Q. So appearances weren't everything?
A. Jordan Spencer, for example, looked different, and his community was capable of making a decision that there was such a thing as a dark white man. Regardless of how they looked, people were capable of assimilating into white communities, places where everyone knew who they and their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were. So race was certainly not just a question of appearance. It was how people acted, the rights that they exercised, the people they associated with — even the people that they hated.
Q. What was the legal standard for defining whiteness in the 19th century?
A. There really was no standard. Virginia for more than a century had a one-quarter rule. If you had one African American grandparent, that made someone legally black. Other states, like North Carolina, had a one-eighth rule, while South Carolina didn't have any specific fraction. One South Carolina court held in the 1830s that "a man of worth, honesty, industry and respectability should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste."