Thoughts: The Invisible Line

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White

Daniel J. Sharfstein

396 pages

The Penguin Press

Source: Publisher


“The difference between black and white was less about “blood” or biology or even genealogy than about how people were treated and whether they were allowed to participate fully in community life. Blacks were the people who were slaves, in fact or in all but name; the rest were white. Jordan Spencer’s community could accept him as an equal as long as he never forced them to acknowledge his ancestry. As long as he was one of the crowd, people could forget what made his family different.”

This is just one of several passages that I marked in Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line. The author traces the lives of three families: the Gibsons, the Spencers, and the Walls. All three families went from being classified as black to white through the generations. The quote above comes from the early chapters about the Spencers, a family who lived in eastern Kentucky in the early 1800s. Not much is known about Jordan Spencer’s early life but he was possibly some kind of kin to George Freeman, a black man who was a respectable member of a small community in Kentucky. After moving to Kentucky to live with Freeman, Jordan decides to pass as white even though he has dark skin. At the time Kentucky was a place that required all newly freed slaves to leave the state so as not to encourage slaves to attempt escape and so that whites wouldn’t have to think of freed slaves as equals.

Jordan Spencer used to paint his hair red to appear more “white”. For the community it didn’t matter to them that he didn’t look white but that his behavior was considered white. To my amazement, the outlook of the community was something that was happening all over the South. People were ignoring the skin color of their neighbors if they possessed land, owned slaves, or just “behaved” white.

I found The Invisible Line to be a pretty interesting read. When I think of passing, I usually think of people who left everything behind, including family, to become white. I never thought about people who passed not by the color of their skin but because of community standards. Also interesting was reading about the effects that this kind of denial has on an individual and later generations. There were a few parts that seem to drag but overall the book is engaging.


12 thoughts on “Thoughts: The Invisible Line

  1. I forgot about the red paint. I loved how when he sweat the red paint would pour down his face and everyone would pretend not to see! I think we do that still when guys use “grecian formula” or wear toupees. But how interesting that this reaction would be also elicited in this case!

    1. Jill, yes! It amazed me to read how people ignored the paint dripping down his face when he sweat and he was always sweating!!It’s incredible how we ignore these kinds of things.

  2. I remember reading Fannie Flagg’s book Fried Green Tomatoes, where it touched on this subject. It is so unfair that they felt they had to do that to be accepted. This sounds like an interesting book to read.

    1. Vivienne, I was reminded of Fried Green Tomatoes too. The young girl in the book who wanted her hair to be “beautiful” and was slowly starving herself. That was so sad to read.

  3. I thought this was a fascinating book. I had heard of people passing and attempting to cross the racial line before, but I was quite surprised at the reactions of some of today’s family members and how indignant some of them were. It is a sad state of affairs that so many struggled with this, but impressive that their neighbors, especially of the Spencers, were willing to overlook the obvious to ensure they were a part of the community. It definitely had a powerful message.

  4. I have been reading a bit about this book, and have been fascinated by the issues and reactions that it has raised. It does sound as though it’s a worthwhile read and on a subject that really piques my interest. It is amazing to me that passing had so little to do with skin color and so much more to do with perceptions. Great review on this one!

  5. I never considered that a person could “pass” because of their own community’s standards – I found that fascinating. I’m really looking forward to reading this one myself.

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  6. It is really sad that people would have to pretend to be something they weren’t but you can’t blame them. During those years they had a much better chance if they could pass for white. It is an awful commentary on our society, isn’t it?

  7. I find stories of ‘passing’ to be fascinating lens into the complexities of prejudice and racial identity, and very revealing. This sounds like a good read.

Comments are closed.