Skip to content

Excerpt From 'The Invisible Line'

'Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White'

From the Colonial era to the present, individuals with African ancestry have crossed the color line and faded into the world around them. They have lived among white people, identified themselves as white, and been regarded by others — neighbors, strangers, government officials — as white. On a daily basis they asserted their new racial status. On vacation they posed for pictures in front of the "whites only" sign at the beach. At night they told their children and grandchildren tales of the horrors of Sherman's March to the Sea. Their descendants had no reason to imagine that they were anything but white. Like most Americans they were taught to believe that the line between white and black is a natural barrier supported by science and religion and fortified by politics and law. Slavery and freedom, segregation and civil rights — the history of race in the United States had little to do with them. All the while, a different story has been hiding in plain sight. ...

[T]races of the migration [from black to white] have survived. ... For centuries African Americans have circulated rumors of whites with black ancestry. Occasional news items described moments when the color line bent and broke: a nosy spouse jimmied open a drawer, only to find photographs of a dark-skinned family; an army recruit cut his throat after military doctors assigned him to a colored unit. Memoirs recounted family members who crossed the color line — an aunt who became Italian, a father who was French until he revealed his true origins on his deathbed. During slavery and segregation, judges and juries regularly puzzled over the boundary between black and white. Individuals challenged being assigned to black schools and railroad cars. Husbands sought annulments by arguing they had unwittingly married black women. ... Beyond the isolated anecdotes, there seemed to be only silence. …

In recent years, however, long-buried stories of migration and assimilation across the color line have begun to surface. Thanks to technological advances of the past decade, millions of Americans are swabbing their cheeks, watching television shows about celebrity genealogies, posting family trees on popular ancestry websites — and stumbling across family secrets. ... [T]he Internet [has] enabled people to learn names of long-dead ancestors and bare genealogical facts — age, place of residence, occupation, a designation of "mulatto" in the 1850 census. They have also found clues for understanding how individuals and communities lived, thought and acted. With every personal account that is recovered, a much bigger story — a new history of what it means to be American — is being revealed.

Excerpted from The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White, by Daniel J. Sharfstein. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © February, 2011. (Read an interview with Daniel J. Sharfstein.)