‘When I Was White’: Sarah Valentine’s memoir considers the meaning of racial identity

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-08-17 01:27Z by Steven

‘When I Was White’: Sarah Valentine’s memoir considers the meaning of racial identity

The Chicago Tribune

Julia M. Klein

'When I Was White’: Sarah Valentine’s memoir considers the meaning of racial identity
Sarah Valentine’s intriguing memoir, “When I Was White,” considers the meaning of racial identity. (St. Martin’s)

“For a long time,” Sarah Valentine writes, “I felt like a bundle of fragments, and I wanted to be whole. I wanted to be able to write a family history that answered all my questions and filled in all the blanks, but all I got were different versions of the past and an incomplete, unfulfilling present.”

This revelatory admission comes near the close of Valentine’s intriguing, if never entirely satisfying, memoir, “When I Was White.” But it could well have served as its opening — a warning to readers that neither a slick solution to the puzzle of racial identity nor a definitive unraveling of the specific mystery of Valentine’s origins would be forthcoming.

A former visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Northwestern University, Valentine grew up in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs, the bright, athletic, dark-hued child of two white parents. To many observers, she was self-evidently of mixed racial heritage. But her family regarded her as simply their (white) daughter — so much so that when black classmates asked her out, her mother cautioned her against “interracial” dating…

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Exploring Grays in a Black-and-White World

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-08-15 20:17Z by Steven

Exploring Grays in a Black-and-White World


Julia M. Klein

Two new books explore the intersection of race and identity in America by investigating families whose biracial members might—or might not—“pass” as white.

Defining racial identity in the United States has always been a fraught enterprise, involving shifting intersections of law, custom, class, ancestry and choice. Physical appearance and money have mattered, but so have family history and community attitudes—and not always in the ways we might suspect.

Two intriguing new books—Daniel J. Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White and Julie Winch’s The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America—underline the fluidity of racial categories over nearly three centuries of American history. And, thanks to legal records and other archival evidence, they offer illuminating detail about precisely how—and often why—individuals circumvented or manipulated these categories.

The destabilization of racial identity begins with a fact: Sexual relationships between blacks and whites, both romantic and coercive, have existed since the earliest days of slavery. Edward Ball’s National Book Award-winning 1998 volume, Slaves in the Family, recounted his search for descendants of slaves owned by his family of South Carolina planters—and his discovery that some of them were his cousins. A decade later, Annette Gordon-Reed imaginatively reconstructed the lives of the mixed-race Hemings family and their ties to Thomas Jefferson in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Read the entire review of the books here.

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The Author Speaks: Interview With Daniel J. Sharfstein

Posted in Articles, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Interviews, Law, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2011-03-06 01:47Z by Steven

The Author Speaks: Interview With Daniel J. Sharfstein

AARP Bulletin
American Association of Retired Persons

Julia M. Klein

His powerful new book examines how three American families became white

Before Daniel J. Sharfstein’s senior year at Harvard, he spent the summer of 1993 in South Africa as a volunteer for a voter education project. There, one of his fellow workers told him she had been categorized as “colored,” or mixed-race, because a constable doing the classification appreciated her father’s service as a police officer.

“As a result of that one simple act, she had led a very different life from her colleagues,” recalls Sharfstein, now associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “That was a revelation to me, that something that could seem as natural and inevitable as race could bend because of a personal relationship or community ties or even just individual whim.”

He returned to the United States wondering whether the same kind of thing had happened here.

Sharfstein’s South African experience, followed by a stint as a journalist, Yale Law School and years of archival research and interviews, led to The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White. The book interweaves the story of three families with African ancestry—the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls—who, over time and in different ways, became identified as white. The color line in America, Sharfstein learned, has been surprisingly permeable. The AARP Bulletin talked to Sharfstein by phone.

Q. Throughout American history, how important was physical appearance in defining whiteness?

A. To a certain degree it was important. We have to remember that, for a long time, the United States was a rural society and almost everybody worked outside. There was a really broad range of complexions that could be considered white…

…Q. What was the legal standard for defining whiteness in the 19th century?

A. There really was no standard. Virginia for more than a century had a one-quarter rule. If you had one African American grandparent, that made someone legally black. Other states, like North Carolina, had a one-eighth rule, while South Carolina didn’t have any specific fraction. One South Carolina court held in the 1830s that “a man of worth, honesty, industry and respectability should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste.”…

…Q. In slavery’s absence, you write, “preserving white privilege seemed to require new, less flexible rules about race and constant aggressive action to enforce them.” Why?

A. What really mattered in the South, in the antebellum period, was not who was black and who was white, but who was slave and who was free. The prospect of freedom for African Americans was a motivating force getting people to think about what racial categories themselves meant. In the last days of slavery, because slavery as an institution was under such attack, white Southerners were countering with race-based justifications, and that survived the demise of slavery. After the Civil War, as black freedom was taking root, right alongside it were modern forms of racism that persist to this day.

Q. You suggest that rigid rules about race only increased the number of people transitioning from black to white. Why was that?

A. When rules became more rigid, they were almost always accompanied by rules that subjected African Americans to higher taxes, made it harder for them to own land and increased fear that free African Americans would be returned to slavery. The harder these laws made it to live and to provide for their children, the greater the incentives were to make the move from black to white. Because these lines were being drawn in a way that essentially separated people who looked white from [other] people who looked white, it was impossible to make the line between black and white impregnable…

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