Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for The New York Times. He is the author of a memoir, Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White. (November 2011)

Escape into Whiteness

Mary Church Terrell, circa 1902
The Invisible Line constructs a nuanced history of racial crossing—carrying the reader from the pre-Revolutionary period to the present day—through the stories of three families. The Gibsons began to pass as white in backcountry South Carolina in the 1760s and then rose to the heights of Southern aristocracy and into the Senate. The Spencers joined an isolated Kentucky mountain community in the 1840s and became legally white after hovering in racial ambiguity for nearly one hundred years. But the book is anchored in the story of Mr. and Mrs. Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall, a well-to-do free black couple who moved to Washington from Oberlin, Ohio, during the hopeful days of Reconstruction.