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The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White by Daniel J. Sharfstein

Sharfstein’s “spellbinding” new study of America’s color line juggles the stories of three families across multiple generations.

(Penguin, $28)

Allow me to offer you a taste of Daniel Sharfstein’s storytelling skills, said Dan Cryer in The Boston Globe. In this “spellbinding” new study of America’s color line, one of the most arresting bigots we meet is Randall Lee Gibson, a Yale-educated Confederate general who openly disparaged black people as “the most degraded of all races of men.” When the Louisiana grandee became a U.S. senator, he effectively cleared the way for racial lynching by working to end the Reconstruction, and he found it amusing that he owned a mansion once occupied by Lincoln’s war secretary. What Gibson didn’t know is that his great-grandfather had been a free man of color in Colonial South Carolina. Sharfstein’s kicker: By the standards of his time and place, Randall Gibson wasn’t a white man. He was “passing.”

Not all of Sharfstein’s narrative gambits work, said Bruce Watson in the San Francisco Chronicle. While the Vanderbilt law professor “sets scenes as well as any novelist,” he’s taken it upon himself to juggle the stories of three families across multiple generations, and the resulting crosscutting just gets confusing. When he puts the Gibsons aside, he might pick up the progress of a clan of subsistence farmers who passed for white in Kentucky. Or track the Ohio-based offspring of a white “gentleman farmer” who fathered children with three of his slaves. Still, many “unforgettable struggles” are vividly dramatized here, and the research alone makes the book “must reading.”

Many of the historical details Sharfstein has uncovered are fascinating in themselves, said Wilbert Rideau in the Financial Times. In 1768, for instance, the South Carolina Assembly refused to classify Randall Gibson’s great-grandfather as black because miscegenation was so widespread that “without a flexible rule, few people could make a secure claim to being white.” Later, in 1835, the state’s highest court ruled that racial status should be determined by a person’s “worth, honesty, industry, and respectability,” as opposed to solely by a “visible” trace of “Negro blood.” Race in America, it turns out, has always been a mutable construct.

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