A Journey From Black to White

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The narrative of African Americans “passing” into white culture has long persisted. These stories are often tragic and filled with shame, secrecy, and the abandonment of home and family. In his new book, “The Invisible Line,” Daniel Sharfstein looks at three families that were once identified as black and are now viewed as white. These stories are ones of pride as white families reconnect with their African-American roots.

Among them is the story of Isabelle Whittemore. She is the great granddaughter of a legendary African American military figure and abolitionist named O.S.B. Wall. She had no idea until recently that she was part African American. Daniel joins us from Tennessee and Isabelle joins us from Mississippi.


Daniel Sharfstein and Isabelle Whittemore

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [5]

A.D. Powell

Too many ignorant journalists describe the families in the book as "African Americans" who "passed for white." They were NOT "African" anything. They started as racially mixed families classified as partly "free colored" (which was NOT "black" or "African") and socially progressed to white status through marriage and conducting themselves in the manner expected of whites in their local communities. A person who "looks white" IS white. Never insult them by calling them "African American." After all, Latinos are nearly all part-black but no one dares to suggest that they should identify with blacks.

May. 23 2011 11:01 PM
cerise wall

I am Isabel's daughter and it is what it is,SO what...

Feb. 25 2011 08:28 AM
Kraig Love from Detroit

If you lined every human being in the world up based on a color continuum, you would not be able to tell where "one" color begins and "another" color ends. I am BEIGE. And so are we ALL. Ketchup, no mustard. With love from Detroit. Peace

Feb. 17 2011 12:37 PM
Anne Collins from Stillwater OK

I was disturbed by the host's comment about the person who discovered that she is the great-granddaughter of a prominent African-American: "She thought she was white."

It sounds to me like the comment really meant "She thought she was pure, untainted, etc." That really smacks of the one-drop theory. The person has lived the life she knew, which was that her parents and grandparents appeared to be of European descent. Now she knows she has ancestry from Africa. Does that make her less "white?" Or more "black?" Or does that make her part of our human race with multi-racial heritage? Is "white" more a cultural descriptive or a racial descriptive? Does "white" still provide the advantages and spares the disadvantages it once did? Is race now less important than class, culture, ambition and ability?

I wish the host had said, "She didn't know she was of biracial heritage."

Feb. 17 2011 11:52 AM
jjny03 from CT

Why does the host keep saying, "she thought she was white"? She might have some black relatives in her family tree but the lady still identifies with white culture.

I'm sure a lot of us have a drop of white or black or whatever, but you choose which part of your family to identify with. Much like Pres. Obama.

Feb. 17 2011 09:41 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.