White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP
Goddard, Terry D., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly
White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP. By Kenneth Robert Janken. (New York: New Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 477. Acknowledgments, preface, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95.)
Biography is a favorite genre of many students of history, and I count myself as part of that group. Biography is also a difficult medium in which to work. Attempting to maintain balance and not appearing to be biased one way or the other is a difficult task for any serious scholar. Kenneth Robert Janken is certainly that, as can be gleaned from a perusal of his bibliography for this in-depth and insightful examination of Walter White, the long-time secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Janken, however, can seem overzealous in his attempts to provide balance, missing no opportunity to question the motives behind many of White's actions.
This is seen in an episode early in White's career with the NAACP. White built his reputation as a fearless field representative investigating the race riots that flared up throughout the country during the "Red Summer" of 1919. Students of Arkansas history will remember this as the year of the infamous Elaine race riot, one the first events White investigated for the NAACP. As Janken notes, "White's account of his week-long exploits in Arkansas is legendary, marking him as both a trickster and a man of extraordinary courage" (p. 51). Janken goes to lengths to point out, however, that White's versions of this and other events were exaggerated and dramatized "to promote himself as a fearless crusader for the race" (p. 52).
While emphasizing White's professional life more than his personal life, Janken's biography is also a psychological study. He attempts to "get inside" White's psyche to explain his actions. For example, while discussing the accidental death of White's father, Janken offers the following: "Did [White] feel remorse at having apparently neglected his Atlanta family? It would appear to be the reason why, years after the tragedy, White placed himself at his father's side from the earliest moments after his accident. …