Monday, October 20, 2014

As white as they want to be: crossing "The Invisible Line"

An Atlanta chauffeur, proud of his ancestral connections to British royalty, and disdainful of his black co-workers, learns that his own father's family was African American. An elderly woman in Kentucky worries that her husband might "lose his love for me" if he discovers her black ancestry. A proud family of South Carolina aristocrats explain away the "darker elements' in their family tree as Gypsy, Sephardic, Turkish, Portuguese, Senecan...anything but African.

These are a few of the people we meet in Daniel Sharfstein's fascinating look at families that straddled the color line from the Colonial era to the present.  Contrary to popular belief, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, race and color were not rock solid social dividers,  nor was intermarriage especially rare or always frowned on. Biracial families like the Walls of Ohio and Washington DC, and the Spencers of Kentucky were highly respected community members, office holders and even authority figures.

In fact, status could determine race rather than the other way around.  According to a South Carolina court for example, "a person's status is not to be determined solely by the distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by reputation, by his reception into society and his having commonly exercised the privileges of a white man. A man of worth honesty, industry and respectability should have the rank of a white man".  Thus when Randall Gibson; Yale graduate, Confederate war hero and United States senator was "accused" of having black ancestry, (which he did), his family's status as long time property owners and people of standing allowed him to remain safely white. “Such status,” Sharfstein explains, “could not mean anything but whiteness. . . . As much as racial purity mattered to white Southerners, they had to circle the wagons around Randall Gibson. If someone of his position could not be secure in his race, then no one was safe.”

Take  look at this interview with author Daniel Sharfstein, and please join us for our discussion this Tuesday October 21st at 7 pm, at Evanston Public Library. This program is offered in partnership with the RACE exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, co-sponsored by the YWCA Evanston/Northshore.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Meet Jacqueline Williams this Monday!

Acclaimed actress Jacqueline Williams  will be back at EPL this coming Monday 10/20 to lead our discussion and reading of  August Wilson's Jitney. Set in the 1970s, Jitney explores the  relationship between a black "jitney" cab service owner and his son.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

RACE - What is it really?

We see it all the time: on surveys, Census forms, applications : "What's your race?" Most of us rarely question our race; we "know" we are white, African American, Indian, etc. But these racial categories are far more fluid and changeable than we may realize. Is "Hispanic" or "Latino" a race? Not according to the current Census, but it used to be. Are Ashkenazic Jewish, Irish, and Italian Americans all part of the same race? Most Americans would say yes, but at the turn of the 19th century, all three of these ethnic groups were considered separate "races",  generally deemed inferior to "whites", (i.e. Northern, Protestant Europeans).

In fact, there is no agreed upon biological definition of  race, yet race as a social construct has had, and continues to have a profound effect on one's social, educational, physical and economic health.

Evanstonians have a rare opportunity to explore these questions as we welcome the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center this month. Developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, it is the first national exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. Combining these perspectives offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States. Co-presented by the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and the YWCA Evanston/North Shore, it runs from October 12, 2014 – January 25, 2015.

EPL is a proud community partner for the RACE exhibit, and our next 3 AAL book discussions all relate to its themes:

The Invisible Line, 3 American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White  Tuesday Oct. 21st 7 pm

Many light skinned African Americans crossed the color line to avoid the very real and harsh implications of racial classification. Legal scholar Daniel Sharfstein chronicles the lives of three such families who made the transition from black to white during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing on archival material, Sharfstein constructs an absorbing history, demonstrating the fluidity and arbitrariness of racial classification.


This groundbreaking book examines how the myth of biological concept of race--revived by purportedly cutting-edge science, race-specific drugs, genetic testing, and DNA databases--continues to undermine a just society and promote inequality in a supposedly "post-racial" era. Fatal Invention is a  timely and provocative analysis of race, science, and politics by one of the nation's leading legal scholars and social critics.



A Dreadful Deceit: the Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America Tuesday, December 16th, 7 pm

Professor Jacqueline Jones profiles six African-Americans from the 1650s  to late 20th-century to demonstrate that race, which has no "basis in biology," didn't become a social construct until around the time of the American Revolution. Jones argues that throughout our history, race has been used as a malleable tool that has been forged over and over to fit the political and economic whims of America's elite.

All 3 books will be available at the 2nd floor desk a month before the discussion. Call 847-448-8620 to register and reserve a copy.