- The Tapestry of Walter White’s Contradictions
In the early stages of his campaign for the presidency, many blacks regarded Barack Obama as too “white”; later many whites regarded him as too “black.” To his credit the biracial Obama presented himself as a mainstream American—and, more than that, as an exemplar of the postracial age. He did not play the race card although others, alas, did. No doubt there are still many folks, most of them over sixty, who are as ignorant, as mean-spirited, and as prejudiced as were their forefathers. Racial identity, always complicated, always contentious, is a current that alternates between how people are defined by others and how they define themselves.
The now nearly forgotten Walter White (1893–1955) belongs to an earlier time when lynching was commonplace in the Jim Crow South, and when the National Association for [End Page lxxxii] the Advancement of Colored People spent much of its time trying to get federal antilynching laws passed. Because White was fair-skinned—and had blond hair and blue eyes to boot—he could not only “pass” for white, but also play the trickster in the bargain: White would amble into a small southern town, posing as an insurance salesman (which he had, in fact, been for the black-owned Standard Life Insurance Company) and engage the locals in conversation about a recent local lynching. For their part the rednecks were happy to oblige, often bragging about what had occurred in bloodcurdling detail. For his part White would return to the naacp office in New York City and write up what he had learned in a series of hard-hitting newspaper articles.
White, however, was more than a skillful, courageous journalist; for during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, he wrote several novels that contained flashes of genuine talent. As with virtually everything else in his life, White worked hard to promote himself, but he was surrounded—and overwhelmed—by more accomplished novelists. His memoir, A Man Called White (1948), was much praised. A chapter from this memoir (“I Learn What I Am”) was widely anthologized. His nonfictional account of the Atlanta race riots in 1906, when he saw racism up close and personal, was not only a defining moment for White but also for his writing. This essay has not lost its edge.
As Thomas Dyja’s clearly organized and crisply written biography makes clear, White risked his life every time he took up temporary residence in the belly of the beast; but Dyja also makes it clear that White was a man with more than a few warts. Never much of a student at Atlanta University (he was graduated in 1916), White was, and remained, the quintessential frat boy: a dapper dresser, a glad-hander, a name-dropper, and a man who made more than his fair share of enemies in the naacp office.
The venerable W. E. B. Du Bois, White’s senior by several decades, sharply disagreed with White in the controversy that pitted self-segregation against assimilation. Du Bois argued on behalf of self-segregation because he felt that whites would never accept integration. White, buoyed by a lifelong optimism, held the opposite view. This and other tensions between them had simmered just beneath the surface for years; but, in the March 1934 issue of The Crisis, Du Bois crossed the line: “First of all, White is white”—this, despite the fact that White had always identified himself as black and had thrown himself headfirst into the continuing struggle for civil rights. Dyja goes on to describe what follows: “Free as White was to do as he pleased, according to Du Bois he had no relation to or knowledge of the problems of black Americans.”
As a lifelong member of the black elite and a man who enjoyed rubbing shoulders with Carl Van Vechten, Blanche Knopf, Eleanor Roosevelt, and comparable people, White got the (mainly undeserved) reputation of a social climber who figured that white people would further his career, whether as a novelist or a...