A biography of Walter White, a little-known Black civil rights leader who passed for white in order to investigate racist murders, helped put the NAACP on the map and changed the racial identity of America forever.
Baime tells White's story with verve, clarity, and perspicacity. The result holds its own with more scholarly biographies of White from Kenneth Janken (2003) and Robert Zangrando and Ronald Lewis (2019) ... A riveting profile of a little-studied Black civil rights leader.
... incurious, uncritical ... The White who emerges from these pages is the man as he seems to have understood himself: preternaturally gifted, courageous and self-made. Little time is spent reflecting on the dangers that White’s Black informants faced in the cities he left behind after his lynching exposés. Nor upon the tremendous efforts of local organizers to make the threat of an African American March on Washington in 1941 credible enough to persuade Franklin Roosevelt to act, nor those of the trade unionists who organized wildcat strikes to force employers to meet their wartime legal obligations. Nor the interracial radicalism of the Unemployed Councils that emerged in the urban Hoovervilles of the early 1930s, nor that of the Black sharecroppers who risked their lives on strikes in the South during the same span of time. Nor the history of Black communism, which connected sharecroppers in Alabama to nut-pickers in St. Louis to Black radical activists and intellectuals of lasting import ... If the life of Walter White is to provide a moral example, it should perhaps give a moment of pause that White’s death was publicly mourned by J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, though not by his own children ... Strangely, Baime and his editors have decided to refer to their historical protagonist by his first name throughout the text, presumably to avoid the mild stylistic complexity of writing about a white-passing Black man named White confronting white people in the name of Black freedom. The usage infantilizes both the reader and the book’s subject, adding to a centuries-long history of disrespectful misnaming—a history that White himself contested by entitling his autobiography A Man Called White. Sadly, White Lies is often problematic: full of liberal pieties, patriotic credulity and threadbare similes. The 'darkest secret' in American history turns out to be lynching, which, while certainly dark, could be termed a secret only by the most willfully oblivious readers of our nation’s past.
Baime’s treatise, White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret, is likely the shortest volume on its subject to date. It’s also the best chance at White’s transcendence into popular history ... Baime’s book conveys the highlights of White’s life without bogging readers down in the details. But some of the things he misses—the 1919 Omaha race riot, which destroyed parts of the Black neighborhood of the small city, for instance—deserve a cursory examination.