Daniel Sharfstein wins 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

Mar 16, 2012

Daniel Sharfstein, associate professor of law, has won the 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for his sensitive account of the fine line people of mixed race have tread in the United States since the nation’s beginning, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (Penguin Press, 2011).

“[The Invisible Line] makes real the fact that, not so long ago, American citizens were forced into hiding their lineage and identity just to live free in this democracy, the perils and sense of loss, no matter which road they chose, and the price being paid even to this day by their descendants, and by extension, all of us,” the judges said in a press release issued by Columbia and Harvard universities.

The J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project, established in 1998 in honor of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist J. Anthony Lukas, is co-administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. The prize recognizes excellence in nonfiction that exemplifies the literary grace and commitment to serious research and social concern that characterized the work of its namesake, J. Anthony Lukas, who died in 1997. Sharfstein will receive the award prize of $10,000 on May 1, 2012, at a ceremony at Harvard University.

In The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, Sharfstein chronicles the history of three African American families who crossed the color line and assimilated into white communities, starting in the 17th century. The book is a result of Sharfstein’s research on the legal history of race in the United States and on dozens of families that, for social, economic, safety and other reasons, chose to change their racial identity and create new lives. He found court and government records, personal letters and other archives that helped paint vivid pictures of these Americans and document their migration across the racial divide.

While previous records of African Americans “passing” as whites have focused on individuals’ struggles to redefine themselves, often by leaving their homes and fabricating new identities, Sharfstein found many who managed to defy the legal definitions of race right within their own communities. What mattered most, he discovered, was not the color of their skin, but how they defined themselves and related to their neighbors. “What this research tells us is that the categories of black and white have never been about blood,” Sharfstein said. “There were plenty of people throughout American history who were not just white, but quintessentially white, powerfully white, and had African American ancestors. Then we’re left thinking, ‘What is black and what is white then, if it’s not about blood and biology?’ And what we wind up with is just the fact of separation, hierarchy, and discrimination.”

Sharfstein teaches courses in legal history, race and the law, and property at Vanderbilt Law School. Before joining Vanderbilt’s law faculty in 2007, he was a Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in Legal History at New York University School of Law. For his research on civil rights and the color line in the American South, he was awarded an Alphonse Fletcher Sr. fellowship in 2011 and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in 2004-05, and he was the inaugural recipient of the Raoul Berger Visiting Fellowship in Legal History at Harvard Law School in 2005-06.

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