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.

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