“How it Feels to be a Negro” by Walter White, Insight into How it Felt to be Black in 1938, Transcribed from Liberty Magazine

Portrait of Walter White, civil rights activist and Secretary of NAACP, 1940. (Photo by Afro-American Newspapers via Gado, Getty Images, & Time Magazine)

The following, I presume, was written by Walter Francis White, former head of the NAACP from 1929 to 1955. It’s a presumption because I cannot find its archival provenance nor the article in digital form after scouring the internet for its existence. To be frank, this article was found in a Liberty magazine from 1938 in an antiques shop in Southeastern New England. To those who don’t know, Liberty Magazine was a general-interest magazine in circulation until 1950.

About the author: Walter Francis White was a remarkable white-passing Black man who wore many hats. Thanks to, for lack of a better term, his white appearance, he was able to circumnavigate an unjust, bigoted world and uncovered many an injustice by moonlighting as a racist sympathizer, despite being proud of his black heritage.

In 1927, he uncovered 41 lynchings, 8 race-based riots, and multiple cases of peonage – a form of indentured servitude, or pseudo-slavery after it was outlawed for decades. He also quintupled the NAACP’s membership to nearly 500,000 members, played a major role in Brown v. Board of Education, and worked with Pres. Truman in desegregating the armed forces after WWII. He was also a journalist, novelist, and essayist, and it would be a disservice to summarize all his accomplishments in merely 3 paragraphs. The following is an excellent account of blackness in the United States in 1938 and I hope that you’ll find and combat its parallels within today’s society. Please note, that “Negro” was the term used for Black people in the 1930s.

Walter Francis White is seated bottom right (Photographer Unknown)

“If you are a member of the white race, have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a skin which was not white? Have you ever dreamed how it would feel to experience the countless problems which pigmentation brings in earning a living or getting an education or even obtaining a cool drink on a hot day when one is away from the areas where members of one’s race live?

Liberty’s editor has asked me to attempt to tell what goes on in the minds of Negro Americans who must face such problems because of race prejudice. It is not an easy assignment. The three hundred and more years we have been in this country have taught us many things – not least among them being that it is not always conducive to safety or longevity to reveal too much of what we are thinking or feeling. We have learned that it pays to keep our mouths shut when words of protest burn to be uttered. Some of us have gone even further by developing a technique of flattery of white folks as a means of securing what we want. We have learned that the judicious use of complimentary titles like “Cap’n,” “Colonel,” “Boss” – accompanied by the right kind and amount of laughter – can frequently extract what we want or, or extricate us from predicaments.

Dishonestly and charlatanism? Perhaps. But in certain sections of country such survival techniques which many of us loathe, has been necessary. Fortunately, even in the South, the scene is beginning to change.

“Segregation,” North Carolina, 1950 (Photo by Elliott Erwitt)

But if I were asked to mention the one thing which has saved the Negro from being crushed by the hard lot he has met, I should probably answer, “His sense of humor.” This has enabled him to laugh not only at his own imperfections and failures, but even more, when he is away from white eyes and ears, at some of the pretensions of superiority of white folks.

Many years ago, in the Southern town where I was born and raised, I heard a conversation between my father and a Negro barber who worked in a shop patronized by more of the affluent white people, ” wouldn’t mind white folks always talking about how superior they are,” the barber said to him, ” if they’d only be superior.”

That remark has often come to mind during the years since I heard it.

We are asked, for example, sometimes by implication and sometimes directly, to believe that the morals of white folks are superior to ours. But you seem to forget that we have worked in your homes as servants, in your hotels as maids and waiters and bellboys; that we read your newspapers with all their juicy scandals ranging from nine-year-old child brides in the Tennessee mountains through the peccadilloes of Park Avenue and Palm Beach and Hollywood; that we see your novels and your plays, which seem increasingly to center around the theme of sex. Do you blame us if we have difficulty in not snickering when we listen to or read your impassioned defenses of “the purity of womanhood” by defenders of lynching or by such Americans as a Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan who is serving a life sentence in a Middle Western state for the rape and murder of a young white girl?

And we chuckle at the inconsistencies of Mr. Jim Crow. In a Louisiana city, white folks feel it necessary to assert their superiority by separating white and Negro streetcar riders by means of a six-inch-high movable board on the back of the seats. When a white person boards a car and finds no vacant “white” seats but only seats back of the sign, he is required by law to move the sign back a seat before sitting down. The value of that ludicrously small board as a protection from “contamination” seems never to have been questioned.

Actor, Al Jolson in blackface for the 1927 film, “The Jazz Singer”(Photo by Hal Mohr)

We Negroes have to listen interminably to stories of how great and superior to all other races of mankind is the white race. But, even after allowance is made for the understandable human trait of looking out for one’s own before extending decent treatment to others, we often wonder why white folks don’t take time to consider the price they and we are having to pay for our prejudices toward each other.

Take, for example, the dollars-and-cents cost to white America of the subnormal economic status of a very large percentage of of the twelve million Negroes in the United States. Miserable housing, inadequate and improper food, insufficient clothing, deficient medical care and hospitalization – all these, born of starvation wages and proscription, are costing American taxpayers, white as well as Negro, a staggering sum annually.

One twenty-one-acre slum area in Cleveland, Ohio in which Negroes are forced by color prejudice to live, cost that city, according to a recent survey, $1,131,953 in a year after deducating all taxes assessed for the area, while private welfare agencies spent on the same area $490,846. A region covering fifty blocks in Detroit, according to a survey of the Housing Commission, produced crime 7 1/2 times the city average, juvenile delinquency 10.4 times the city average, tuberculosis 6 1/2 times, pneumonia 8 times, infant mortality 1 1/2 times that of the city as a whole. Taxes were delinquent 327 percent, 92 percent of the property being in tax arrears for from three to four years. But the average family income for that area had dropped in four years from $1,193 annually to $300! The vast majority of such jobs as had been made available by a slowly returning recovery had been given to whites. We Negroes can only wonder why the white man cannot for his own sake realize the ghastly cost of continued impoverishment of a tenth of the population because of race prejudice.

Family leaves Florida for the North during the Great Depression (Via MPI, Getty Images, & Smithsonian Magazine)

In a Midwestern industrial city recently a group of businessmen who had begun vaguely to comprehend where such a course was leading them invited an intelligent Negro to meet with them to discuss the local situation. The Negro asked, “How many of you go down to the post office on payday?”

His auditors looked puzzled. “You should,” the Negro told them. “You’d see there long lines of your employees buying money orders to Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland. Some of your workers are citizens – many of them are not. All the Negroes who live in your city are American born. Don’t you see that if you put aside some of your prejudices against dark skin and gave employment to some of the skilled Negro workers here, those Negroes would be spending their wages for food, clothing, medicine, and other necessities here with your own merchants instead of sending out of the country and out of your city millions of dollars annually, as is now the case?”

The Negro wonders – and so do I – whether his logical appeal to enlightened selfishness will have any effect. And we wonder just what America thinks – if it does think – goes on inside when at infinite cost we try to secure an education and make something of ourselves.

As I write I have before me now a moving letter from a young Negro who in the face of poverty and discouragement has attained a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University in New York City. He writes to me to ask for help in securing opportunity to work, if necessary without pay, and thus gain experience and data necessary for his doctorate and to qualify for a state position as a psychologist. But wherever he has turned to gain such experience, he has found the door shut tight in his face. The chief psychologist of one of the largest municipal hospitals (supported, incidentally, by taxes paid by Negroes as well as whites) told him brutally that “the field is not one for a Negro.”

Do you ever wonder why “agitators” and “preachers of subversive doctrines” have been busy in Negro neighborhoods throughout the United States these last few years? Perhaps it is timidity – perhaps a faith in the American ideal of government – perhaps a fear to flee from evils we know to evils we know not of – perhaps the “purges” now going on in Russia, Germany – perhaps it is a combination of these which has kept the American Negro relatively immune to movements designed to change our form of government.

Even more inexplicable than the shortsidedness of the native white American stock is that of other minority group in the United States.

A few years ago I encountered a striking example of this attitude. A group of Catholic, Jewish, and liberal Protestant Americans asked me to do what I could to induce Negro track stars on the 1936 Olympics team to boycott the games if held in Nazi Germany, because, they argued eloquently, “we minority groups must unite in opposing oppression.” I am sure they thought me a most flippant person when I told them that I wasn’t certain it was a smart idea to boycott the games, because it might be a helpful thing to let the world and particularly the Germans see Jesse Owens and other dark-skinned Americans run the legs off Hitler’s “Aryan” athletes.

I reminded them also that a decade ago, when a wave of agitation was sweeping the country in the form of city ordinances, restrictive covenants, and mob violence to herd all Negroes in ghettos, an attempt had been made to acquaint other minorities of the danger to them inherent in such efforts. Instead of taking heed, some of the groups so approached indicated rather clearly resentment at the implication that there was then anything in common between their own groups and the Negro.

Perhaps it was none too Christian to dig up the past in this fashion. But it is not amiss to remind other Americans as well as those belonging to minority groups of the dangers of such shortsightedness.

Jesse Owens (James Cleveland Owens) runs at the Olympic Summer Games in Berlin in 1936 (Photo via Getty Images, Ullstein Bild, & Time Magazine)

We are living today in a sorely disordered world. Grave and complex are the dangers which threaten us if war comes. Almost as grave are those ahead of us even if we as a nation are able to stay out of war. In either event, our safety and well-being depend upon the morale of all the diverse elements which make up our national population. Is it healthy as a nation to have one tenth of our people impoverished, broken in spirit, resentful at the heaping up of injustice and denial even of rudimentary opportunity to live normal lives?

We Negroes want to love America and be proud of her. We want to live in peace with our neighbors, to respect them and be respected by them. We want to give freely of our labor, our songs, our skill in every field of activity where we have skill to contribute without having doors of opportunity slammed tight in our faces whenever we seek to rise above the lowest level of life. We want white folks – and black and brown and yellow ones too – to be superior by reason of achievement and ethics, and not chiefly because of a fantastic and dangerous racialism theory.

We don’t object to your lecturing us on morals, but we could listen with greater attention did we not know of the frequency with which our critics strayed from the codes they recommend. You laugh in superior fashion at the gaudy colors Negroes sometimes wear – but did it ever occur to you that we too laugh when we see the members of your fraternal orders, dressed in clashing colors and proudly bearing titles which even Octavus Roy Cohens’s Florian Slappey could not match? If only white folks were superior.

The End.”

Boston-Anti Busing Protest (Photo by Stanley Forman, Via Boston Herald)

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