THE INVISIBLE LINE: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White by Daniel J. Sharfstein (cover from Aaron Douglas’ “Aspirations” all rights to current holders) looks at “passing” through the history of three families: the Gibsons, a wealthy South Carolina family that went from mulatto to white by the early 18th century; the Walls, mixed-race slave children whose patriarch Orindatus (an Obie) was active in the abolition but whose children all eventually crossed over; and the Spencers, poor whites in Kentucky whose dark looks were ignored simply because they were an embedded part of the community. Sharfstein’s point is partly how flexible the absolute racial barrier was in practice, so that whiteness could hinge on how you acted, or how bad it would be for the community if you were declared black (though noting that making exceptions didn’t soften the color line, and may have made it easier to impose). The book ends with a discussion of the descendants’ reactions (many of them having learned the truth through genealogical searches) ranging from time-honored rationalizations about Portuguese Blood to horror to calm acceptance. More interesting than Passing Strange, not least because there’s more documentation.
LIFE ON THE COLOR LINE: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black by Gregory Howard Williams is an autobiography wherein Williams recounted how after a childhood as a middle-class Italian-American, his parents’ divorce revealed Daddy was black (“You can’t stay with grandma any more. She doesn’t want any nigger kids around.”). This results in a familiar inner-city childhood as Williams deals with prejudice, crappy schools, a drunken and self-destructive dad and the lowered expectations his teachers have, along with the more unusual frustrations of straddling the color line (his father didn’t want him dating black, but Williams got in serious trouble when he dated white). Interesting in spots.
THE GREY MANE OF MORNING by Joy Chant was her second Vandarei novel, coming out between Red Moon and Black Mountain and When Voiha Wakes. Set centuries in the past of Red Moon, this has the Khentor nomads turning against their nominal overlords, the Golden Men, after the latter take one warrior’s sister as part of their regular tribute. Unfortunately this fell completely flat for me, reading like the kind of old movie called a “sweeping historical epic”—you could plug in any decadent empire and any Noble Savage tribe of horsemen and get the same story. Too bad that with only three Vandarei novels, this one was so weak.