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Interview with Daniel J. Sharfstein, author of “The Invisible Line"

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I think of race as a series of rules. Some are mandated by legislatures, ruled by courts, or are informal rules. At the same time, race is something people experience every day. Understanding how they live it and think about it meant I researched court documents, and saw how legal rulings generally deferred to people’s every day experience.

What was it that made the stories of the three families you chose to follow so particularly compelling? Haven't many people crossed the race line the same way that they did?

I chose these three families because they were [both] typical and extraordinary. These families represent the diversity and range of people who crossed the line from black to white through class, geography, and social positions. There is such a rich historical record about the [Wall, Gibson, and Spencer] families [that allows us] to move beyond genealogical facts and think about who they were and what they did.

What did you find most interesting when comparing attitudes between the 1700s and 1800s, when the bulk of the narrative takes place, to present-day?

When looking at the Kentucky family, the Spencers, Jordan Spencer was visibly dark. He dyed his hair and every time he would sweat, the dye would run. There were constant reminders that this man was different. At the same time, the community still saw him as white, and decided that you could have a dark white man. These communities were capable of a lot of tolerance … on an individual level. Americans were exercising tolerance but at the same time, they chose to hate.

Did you find that people’s reactions were overwhelmingly negative upon finding out these families had African American ancestry?

Certainly, like O.S.B. Wall’s great-grandson [Thomas Murphy]. But the attitudes certainly evolve over time. People who were in denial make peace with the history. I understand Murphy’s reaction as a recognition of denial. But through years of working on his family history, he has a much stronger sense that this is his story. He’s become a tireless researcher and is committed to getting the story out, and I think that says volumes.

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