White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP
AUTHOR: KENNETH ROBERT JANKEN
NEW YORK: THE NEW PRESS, 2003
The life and times of Walter White (1893-1955) is a very important study as it intersects directly with the history of segregation and racialized relations in the US. Fortunately, Kenneth Janken has captured much of White's background, racial ambivalence, and his involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This book is a timely and first biographical portrait of this controversial "race" man.
Why should Walter White be a fascinating African American personality to cover in a biography? The answer to this question can be found in his phenotype. Walter White was in the average person's eyes: White. His blond hair and blue eyes only testified more to the assumption that he could never be of African heritage. However, within the context of the North American social order, Walter White was indeed a man of African heritage. He came out of a southern middle class, "mixed" heritage Atlanta, background that had ingrained the "one drop rule" and placed by law anyone with the smallest amount of African blood into the African American cultural group. Born just three years before the Plessey versus Ferguson Supreme Court decision that upheld social segregation between Blacks and Whites, as long as facilities were "equal" (which was hardly ever the case), Walter White's physical appearance was certainly ambiguous, but his mind and his heart remained unequivocally African American. Moreover, even though Walter White's parents and siblings may well have been able to "pass" into the dominant White society, Janken writes: "There is no suggestion that the White family tried to pass; indeed, the family was enmeshed in the city's principal African American institutions" (p. 15).
The fact that White spent the majority of his adult years, nearly forty years (1918-1955), working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) indicates his staying power in the cause for racial social justice. Janken gives a good account of his work and suggests that he has not been given enough recognition in the contemporary history books relating to African Americans (pp. 368-369). It is difficult to disagree with the perspective that still too little is known about Walter White's contribution to the African American struggle, yet he is not alone. Many significant contributors in the fight for civil and human rights have not been given enough recognition. In terms of Walter White's peers, one could mention Ella Baker as a perfect example of a person who has not received significant acknowledgement for her work in the struggle for civil rights. In point of fact, Janken provides a rare photograph of Ella Baker in the center pages of his book, along with a collection of other key personalities connected to Walter White's life and legacy.
Arguably, Walter White had his finest hour for the NAACP as an undercover investigator following the contours of lynching and race riots. …