I blogged about Dan’s book before I read it and said “it’s surely terrific.” Now I’ve read it, and it is!
The book follows three families, each occupying its own complicated position on the boundary between black and white, from Revolutionary times to the early 20th century. Sharfstein pieces together a miraculously detailed picture of his subjects from newspaper accounts, archives, and especially legal records. It’s a great work of American history, but it’s also pretty straight-up exciting — daring slave rescues, courtroom dramas, Kentucky blood feuds, and steamship explosions make good seasoning for Dan’s contemplations of the American racial conundrum.
- Dan has been researching and writing this book for 15 years or so. While reading it I kept thinking “this is why we have books and not just blogs; this is why we have historians and not just editorialists.”
- Every American should, once a year, read a book about US history between the 1865 and 1910. In high school, you get the Civil War, then Lincoln is assassinated, and the next thing you know there are biplanes flying around shooting at each other. And maybe they’ll say “oh and by the way Theodore Roosevelt opened a bunch of national parks.” I certainly made it through school (in what’s officially the South!) without ever hearing about Reconstruction. The complicated, multifront forward-and-backwards struggle toward racial equality gets flattened into something like this: the slaves get freed — then a hundred years later their descendants suddenly realize they should be allowed to eat at Woolworth’s.
- A running theme of Dan’s book is the extreme attention paid to and importance placed on “racial purity”. It really mattered to people (though not to all people, and not in the same way to all the people to whom it mattered) whether you had 16 white great-great-grandparents or only 15. “Racial purity” is one of those words, like “honor,” that now seems to us a strange abstraction, not referring to anything in the actual world, but was experienced by our ancestors as a real thing. I wonder whether “privacy” will go down the same path. If so, I hope the future contains book-writing historians like Dan to explain to my great-great-grandchildren what I meant by it.