How one Civil Rights activist posed as a white man in order to investigate lynchings

Posted in Articles, Audio, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, Social Justice, United States on 2022-04-21 20:32Z by Steven

How one Civil Rights activist posed as a white man in order to investigate lynchings

Fresh Air
National Public Radio
2022-03-30

Dave Davies, Guest Host

White Lies author A.J. Baime tells the story of Walter White, a light-skinned Black man whose ancestors had been enslaved. For years White risked his life investigating racial violence in the South.

Listen to the story (00:42:04) and read the transcript here.

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A vigorous examination of ‘Mr. NAACP,’ who passed as White

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2022-04-01 02:58Z by Steven

A vigorous examination of ‘Mr. NAACP,’ who passed as White

The Washington Post
2022-03-25

Kevin Boyle, William Smith Mason Professor of American History
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Walter White was executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in June 1942. (Gordon Parks/Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress) (Gordon Parks /Farm Security Administration/Library of Congress

When Walter White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s New York staff in 1918, he had a thin record of civil rights activism. But he quickly made himself into the association’s indispensable man, particularly skilled at communicating the terror of racial violence to White audiences. It was a talent built partly on his limitless courage, partly on his incessant charm, and partly on a family inheritance that set him apart from most of Black America. “I am a Negro,” he wrote late in life. “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”

But the marks of slavery were. The sexual exploitation that ran through the antebellum South coiled tightly round White’s maternal line: Both his great-grandfather and grandfather were prominent White men; his great-grandmother and grandmother, enslaved women powerless to resist them. His mother was born into bondage, too, just as the Civil War was about to bring the slave system down. Over the decades of freedom that followed, she and the light-skinned man she married pulled their family into the Black middle class, where their color carried a great deal of cachet. There White was born and raised, wrapped in the Victorian virtues of turn-of-the-century Atlanta’s most prestigious Black neighborhood as Jim Crow closed in around him.

A.J. Baime centers the first two thirds of his vigorous biography, “White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret,” on the first 12 years of White’s confrontation with that brutal regime. His breakthrough came two weeks into his time as an NAACP staffer, when his boss, the incomparable James Weldon Johnson, sent him to investigate a lynching in tiny Estill Springs, Tenn. White arrived in town claiming to be a traveling salesman. In short order, he was sitting in the general store, chatting up the locals who assumed that he was as White as they were. By nightfall, he had gathered all the horrifying details that made his resulting exposé, published in the NAACP magazine, the Crisis, a sensation…

Read the entire review here.

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Born in Atlanta in 1893, White was defined as Black by Southern laws and customs. Yet his enslaved forebears were raped by white owners, making him, according to family history, a great-grandson of William Henry Harrison. With fair skin, blue eyes and blond hair, he could easily have passed as white and ensured himself a better life.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2022-02-13 05:07Z by Steven

The double life of the title [White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret] plays out several ways. Born in Atlanta in 1893, [Walter] White was defined as Black by Southern laws and customs. Yet his enslaved forebears were raped by white owners, making him, according to family history, a great-grandson of William Henry Harrison. With fair skin, blue eyes and blond hair, he could easily have passed as white and ensured himself a better life.

Instead, White worked doggedly to force change. [A. J.] Baime depicts him as a superhero with a secret identity. In the 1920s he lived in Harlem as a Black man, taking on a crucial role in the fledgling NAACP while also fostering the Harlem Renaissance by nurturing Black artists like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Zora Neale Hurston. He invited them to his high-profile parties, introduced them to white publishers like Mark Van Doren and Alfred Knopf. (His own books were also well received.)

Stuart Miller, “He risked his life to become a founding father of civil rights. Why was he forgotten?The Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2022. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-02-09/walter-f-white-a-founder-of-civil-rights-white-lies-biography.

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He risked his life to become a founding father of civil rights. Why was he forgotten?

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, Social Justice, United States on 2022-02-11 03:18Z by Steven

He risked his life to become a founding father of civil rights. Why was he forgotten?

The Los Angeles Times
2022-02-09

Stuart Miller

Walter F. White, forgotten civil rights hero and the subject of a new book. (Schomberg Center, New York Public Library)

Mention Walter White and it will likely conjure an image of Bryan Cranston from “Breaking Bad,” playing the man who snarled, “I am the danger.”

But there’s a real-life Walter White who deserves to be a household name — a Black man who faced unfathomable danger in pursuit of truth and justice as he did battle with the American way. White should rank alongside Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as a founding father of the civil rights era. Yet he is all but forgotten today.

That oversight gets an overdue correction in A.J. Baime’s engrossing new biography, “White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret.”…

Read the entire article here.

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A Man Called White and Exploring America’s Darkest Secret in “White Lies”

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, Social Justice, United States on 2022-02-09 03:15Z by Steven

A Man Called White and Exploring America’s Darkest Secret in “White Lies”

Chicago Review of Books
2022-02-07

Steve Nathans-Kelly

An interview with A.J. Baime about his new book, “White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret.”

When we speak of the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, typically we refer to the period beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56—which thrusted Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the national stage. This canonical era concludes with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965 following the pivotal showdown in Selma. Those eleven years formed the Movement’s dominant narrative, which blurred and obscured most of what came before and after (and oversimplified much that’s in between).

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s landmark 2005 essay, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Uses of the Past,” ushered in a critical reassessment of these artificial historical boundaries. Hall argued that anointing this era not only limited the movement’s lifespan to a “halcyon decade,” but also narrowed its goals to the pursuit of a vaguely defined “color-blind” society, a notion later used to recast King and others as proponents of neoliberal social and fiscal policy.

Focusing exclusively on this period also meant overlooking many of the foundational figures who preceded it and laid the groundwork for nearly everything that followed.

One such figure is Walter F. White—known in his lifetime as “Mr. NAACP”—who led America’s most powerful civil rights organization from 1929 until his death in 1955. White featured prominently in nearly every important battle against segregation and white supremacy during those years. White’s extraordinary life demonstrates how blinding white Americans’ appalling lack of color-blindness could be.

By all appearances, the blond-haired and blue-eyed Walter White was white. But like his multiracial parents, both born to formerly enslaved people, White identified as Black throughout his life. In his early years with the NAACP, he used his appearance to infiltrate Southern white communities as an undercover white man, gathering critical information on brutal lynchings from killers keen to brag about their crimes…

Read the entire interview here.

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White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret

Posted in Biography, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, Social Justice, United States on 2022-02-09 02:53Z by Steven

White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret

Mariner Books
2022-02-08
400 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0358447757
Paperback ISBN: 978-0358581772
eBook ISBN: 9780358439660
Audiobook ISBN: 9780358581932

A. J. Baime

A riveting biography of Walter F. White, a little-known Black civil rights leader who passed for white in order to investigate racist murders, help put the NAACP on the map, and change the racial identity of America forever

Walter F. White led two lives: one as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and the NAACP in the early twentieth century; the other as a white newspaperman who covered lynching crimes in the Deep South at the blazing height of racial violence. Born mixed race and with very fair skin and straight hair, White was able to “pass” for white. He leveraged this ambiguity as a reporter, bringing to light the darkest crimes in America and helping to plant the seeds of the civil rights movement. White’s risky career led him to lead a double life. He was simultaneously a second-class citizen subject to Jim Crow laws at home and a widely respected professional with full access to the white world at work. His life was fraught with internal and external conflict—much like the story of race in America. Starting out as an obscure activist, White ultimately became Black America’s most prominent leader. A character study of White’s life and career with all these complexities has never been rendered, until now.

By the award-winning, best-selling author of The Accidental President, Dewey Defeats Truman, and The Arsenal of Democracy, White Lies uncovers the life of a civil rights leader unlike any other.

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How Nella Larsen’s Passing deconstructed the question of race

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-11-15 17:38Z by Steven

How Nella Larsen’s Passing deconstructed the question of race

The New Statesman
2021-11-12

Gary Younge, Professor of Sociology
University of Manchester

Photo by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Larsen’s 1929 novel, now a Netflix film, illustrates the degree to which race is a construct – without lecturing the reader.

Every year approximately 12,000 white-skinned Negroes disappear,” Walter White, the former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, wrote in a 1947 article. “People whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration… Men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American colour line imposes on them.”

White had first-hand experience. The black president of the NAACP had blonde hair and blue eyes. He would “disappear” himself from time to time, so that he could safely investigate lynching in the American South. The piece, published in TIME magazine, was called “Why I Choose to Remain a Negro”.

The term “passing” relates to those who disappear – pretending to be something, and therefore someone, that they are not, usually in search of a better, safer or easier life. The practice is not limited to race. It could be a Jew posing as a gentile; a Catholic as a Protestant. But the challenges remain the same and lend themselves easily to narrative tension – the need to cut yourself off from your past, the fear of being discovered, the construction of a life that is a lie.

Nella Larsen’s laconic novella, Passing, draws from the human toll and intrigue that emerges from the transgression, subterfuge and outright deceit involved in an African American woman passing as white in 1920s America. Published in 1929, it has been adapted into a film by the British actor Rebecca Hall, now streaming on Netflix. The novella has long been one of my favourites among the works from the Harlem Renaissance, the literary movement that emerged among black artists and writers in 20th-century New York and saw the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and Aaron Douglas become prominent. Sparsely written, character-driven and emotionally complex, it illustrates the degree to which black is a political colour, race is a construct, and racism is a system in which colour is a component, not a determinant – without actually lecturing the reader on any of that…

Read the entire article here.

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Erasure and Recollection: Memories of Racial Passing

Posted in Anthologies, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-09-29 01:09Z by Steven

Erasure and Recollection: Memories of Racial Passing

Peter Lang
September 2021
366 pages
13 fig. b/w.
Paperback ISBN:978-2-8076-1625-7
ePUB ISBN:978-2-8076-1627-1 (DOI: 10.3726/b18256)

Edited by:

Hélène Charlery, Professor of English Literature
University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, Toulouse, France

Aurélie Guillain, Professor of American Literature
University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, Toulouse, France

Many recent studies of racial passing have emphasized the continuing, almost haunting power of racial segregation even in the post-segregation period in the US, or in the post-apartheid period in South Africa. This “present-ness” of racial passing, the fact that it has not really become “passé,” is noticeable in the great number of testimonies which have been published in the 2000s and 2010s by descendants of individuals who passed for white in the English-speaking world. The sheer number of publications suggest a continuing interest in the kind of relation to the personal and national past which is at stake in the long-delayed revelation of cases of racial passing.

This interest in family memoirs or in fictional works re-tracing the erasure of some relative’s racial identity is by no means limited to the United States: for instance, Zoë Wicomb in South Africa or Zadie Smith in the UK both use the passing novel to unravel the complex situation of mixed-race subjects in relation to their family past and to a national past marked by a history of racial inequality.

Yet, the vast majority of critical approaches to racial passing have so far remained largely focused on the United States and its specific history of race relations. The objective of this volume is twofold: it aims at shedding light on the way texts or films show the work of individual memory and collective recollection as they grapple with a racially divided past, struggling with its legacy or playing with its stereotypes. Our second objective has been to explore the great variety in the forms taken by racial passing depending on the context, which in turn leads to differences in the ways it is remembered. Focusing on how a previously erased racial identity may resurface in the present has enabled us to extend the scope of our study to other countries than the United States, so that this volume hopes to propose some new, transnational directions in the study of racial passing.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction – Hélène Charlery and Aurélie Guillain
  • Part I: Memories of Racial Passing – Reconstructing Local and Personal Histories – From Homer Plessy to Paul Broyard
    • To Pass or Not to Pass in New Orleans – Nathalie Dessens
    • Racial Passing at New Orleans Mardi Gras; From Reconstruction to the Mid- Twentieth Century: Flight of Fancy or Masked Resistance? – Aurélie Godet
    • Passing through New Orleans, Atlanta, and New York City: The Dynamics of Racial Assignation in Walter White’s Flight (1926) – Aurélie Guillain
    • African American Women Activists and Racial Passing: Personal Journeys and Subversive Strategies (1880s– 1920s) – Élise Vallier-Mathieu
  • Part II: Memory, Consciousness and the Fantasy of Amnesia in Passing Novels
    • “What Irene Redfield Remembered”: Making It New in Nella Larsen’s Passing – M. Giulia Fabi
    • Between Fiction and Reality: Passing for Non- Jewish in Multicultural American Fiction – Ohad Reznick
    • Experiments in Passing: Racial Passing in George Schuyler’s Black No More and Arthur Miller’s Focus – Ochem G.l.a. Riesthuis
    • Passing to Disappearance: The Voice/ Body Dichotomy and the Problem of Identity in Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing (2004) – Anne-Catherine Bascoul
  • Part III: Memories of Racial Passing within and beyond the United States: Towards a Transnational Approach
    • “The Topsy-Turviness of Being in the Wrong Hemisphere” Transnationalizing the Racial Passing Narrative – Sinéad Moynihan
    • Passing, National Reconciliation and Adolescence in Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen, 2002) and The Wooden Camera (Ntshaveni Wa Luruli, 2003) – Delphine David and Annael Le Poullennec
    • Transnational Gendered Subjectivity in Passing across the Black Atlantic: Nella Larsen’s Passing, Michelle Cliff ’s Free Enterprise and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time – Kerry-Jane Wallart
  • About the Authors/ Editors
  • Index
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Thinking In Colour

Posted in Audio, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2021-05-25 14:23Z by Steven

Thinking In Colour

BBC Radio 4
British Broadcasting Corporation
2021-05-10

Gary Younge, Professor of Sociology
Manchester University, Manchester, United Kingdom

Caitlin Smith, Producer
Tony Phillips, Executive Producer


Bliss Broyard and her father Anatole Broyard (photo: Sandy Broyard)

Passing is a term that originally referred to light skinned African Americans who decided to live their lives as white people. The civil rights activist Walter White claimed in 1947 that every year in America, 12-thousand black people disappeared this way. He knew from first-hand experience. The black president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had blonde hair and blue eyes which meant he was able to investigate lynching in the Deep South, while passing in plain sight.

In a strictly segregated society, life on the other side of the colour line could be easier. But it came at a price.

Here, Gary Younge, Professor of Sociology at Manchester University, explores stories of racial passing through the prism of one of his favourite books, Passing, by Nella Larsen.

The 1929 novella brought the concept into the mainstream. It tells the story of two friends; both African-American though one ‘passes’ for white. It’s one of Gary Younge’s, favourite books, for all that it reveals about race, class and privilege.

Gary speaks with Bliss Broyard, who was raised in Connecticut in the blue-blood, mono-racial world of suburbs and private schools. Her racial identity was ensconced in the comfort of insular whiteness. Then in early adulthood Bliss’ world was turned upside down. On her father’s deathbed she learned he was in fact a black man who had been passing as white for most of his life. How did this impact Bliss’ identity and sense of self?

Gary hears three extraordinary personal accounts, each a journey towards understanding racial identity, and belonging. With Bliss Broyard, Anthony Ekundayo Lennon, Georgina Lawton and Professor Jennifer DeVere Brody.

Excerpts from ‘Passing’ read by Robin Miles, the Broadway actress who has narrated books written by Kamala Harris and Roxane Gay.

Listen to the story (00:28:00) here.

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Walter F. White: The NAACP’s Ambassador for Racial Justice

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Social Justice, United States on 2019-01-05 01:39Z by Steven

Walter F. White: The NAACP’s Ambassador for Racial Justice

West Virginia University Press
January 2019
468 pages
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-946684-62-2
eBook ISBN: 978-1-946684-63-9

Robert L. Zangrando, Professor Emeritus of History
University of Akron

Ronald L. Lewis, Stuart and Joyce Robbins Chair and Professor Emeritus of History
West Virginia University

Walter F. White of Atlanta, Georgia, joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1918 as an assistant to Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson. When Johnson retired in 1929, White replaced him as head of the NAACP, a position he maintained until his death in 1955. During his long tenure, White was in the vanguard of the struggle for interracial justice. His reputation went into decline, however, in the era of grassroots activism that followed his death. White’s disagreements with the US Left, and his ambiguous racial background—he was of mixed heritage, could “pass” as white, and divorced a black woman to marry a white woman—fueled ambivalence about his legacy.

In this comprehensive biography, Zangrando and Lewis seek to provide a reassessment of White within the context of his own time, revising critical interpretations of his career. White was a promoter of and a participant in the Harlem Renaissance, a daily fixture in the halls of Congress lobbying for civil rights legislation, and a powerful figure with access to the administrations of Roosevelt (via Eleanor) and Truman. As executive secretary of the NAACP, White fought incessantly to desegregate the American military and pushed to ensure equal employment opportunities. On the international stage, White advocated for people of color in a decolonized world and for economic development aid to nations like India and Haiti, bridging the civil rights struggles at home and abroad.

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