I grew up overseas as an embassy brat and met my first black Americans in the early ’60s as an eight year old on summertime home leave when my parents engaged a couple from Fort Myers, Florida, to serve as domestic servants. To work for us, Ernest and Gertrude Keaton had to drive from Florida to Massachusetts. During those summers at home, it was from Gertrude that I first learned of a remarkable book they used to come north. It was the bible for black travelers at the time. Only later in life did I learn its name.
Published by Victor H. Green, a Harlem postal worker, The Negro Motorist Green Book, sometimes called The Negro Traveler’s Green Book, listed those businesses that blacks could safely use to get their cars repaired, find a meal, get their hair done, or spend the night. A traveling African American blindly entering a business establishment, particularly in the Jim Crow South, risked danger or even death.
It was my first lesson into the oppression, cruelty, and terror that faced African Americans, and for a sheltered kid it was also a shock. Later as a teenager in an American private boarding school I continued my education in race matters when I became friends with the two or three black students admitted to our waspy ranks. Naively, I invited one of these new friends to my home and then spent an uncomfortable hour at the dinner table, not having considered how he might feel being served lunch by a black butler. A year later I brought a black friend I had met through my summer job to sail at a storied boat club in the Berkshires where the man who ran the place erupted in a coughing fit then leaned over to tell me, “His kind is not welcomed here.” To my father’s credit he resigned our family’s membership dating back to the beginning of the century.
All of these childhood memories came back to me in recent years as I wrote Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press. Ethel Lois Payne was about the same age as Gertrude Keaton and confronted the same kinds of racism of which I first learned about in the kitchen of our house.
Known as the “First Lady of the Black Press,” the South Side Chicago native rose to become the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender, the leading black newspaper of the nation in the ’50s. She publicly prodded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to support desegregation, and her reporting on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Little Rock school desegregation crisis enlightened and activated black readers across the nation. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized Payne’s seminal role by presenting her with a pen used in signing the Civil Rights Act, and later one used to sign the Voting Right Act the following year.
Our lives could not have been much more different and our contrasting histories were much on my mind when I pieced together Payne’s life. Could I—should I—be the one to write her story?
Biography forces the writer to inhabit the life of the subject, delving into intimacies that historians don’t consider. For instance, as I progressed in my research, I learned I would have to write about Payne’s romantic interests, deal with the rumor that she was gay (she wasn’t), and discuss issues of her weight, clothing, and her wigs.
In the end I found the confidence, the permission, and the way forward in Payne’s own struggles as a journalist. As a fearless and intrepid black reporter in the ’50s and ’60s, when white men dominated the industry and the civil rights movement was reaching a crescendo, Payne jettisoned one of the sacred tenets of journalism. “For black journalists, particularly me, I think it made us know that we could not stand aside and be so-called objective witnesses,” she said. “So I adopted a code of trying to be fair, but I could not divorce myself from the heart of the problem, because I was part of the problem.”
I, too, realized I was part of a problem as a white writer. I had to first acknowledge that I could not produce the kind of literary portrait of Payne that an African American or a woman, or someone who was both female and black could. My version would be different. At the same time, writing a biography is the literary equivalent of portrait painting. What each artist brings to the canvas differs greatly, as does the result, but it does not mean that one painting is necessarily truer than the other.
I opted to follow Payne’s code of fairness. Above all, she believed that journalism liberates and empowers one to be able to write empathetically about people, events, and ideas outside of one’s own experience. Aside from segregationists who abhorred Payne’s writing, no one questioned her ability to write about the white male leaders of the era, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Why can’t I, a bald white male author, write about a black female reporter who became famous for writing about a bald white president?
In the end it turned out that writing about the black world in which Payne grew up and worked was the least problematic aspect of my work. My training as a reporter gave me the skills to write about a world beyond my experience. It was not much different, say, than learning about the Jewish world of rural Hungary where Joseph Pulitzer, my previous subject, had grown up.
But two other major challenges arose. The first was a realization that either my readers knew a lot or very little about Payne’s world. To give too much by way of explanation would be an insult to my black readers, to give too little would be to leave my white readers befuddled. For instance, when Payne described the solidarity among the ranks of the Montgomery protesters in 1956, she wrote, “The bus boycott had brought about a unity of purpose and nobody was tattling to ‘Mr. Charlie.’ ” Her African American readers certainly knew what she meant, but I didn’t. So I opted for a footnote: “’Mr. Charlie’ was a term frequently used in blues songs that referred to white men who are regarded as oppressors of blacks.”
Thus in instances such as with “Mr. Charlie,” I decided to explain items that were unique to black culture. I figured my black readers wouldn’t mind. But I discovered, as a white person, I wasn’t able to do the same when it came to my culture. Payne could navigate in both worlds because she had no choice but to do so. As a white, I had retained the option of living in an insular world of sameness.
As I wrote about Payne’s life in the white world—my world—I confronted my own prejudices. I consider myself to be a progressive sort, free of racial biases. Yet I began to see how easily writing reinforced racial divisions. In almost every tale I told I had to identify the race of the participants. When, for instance, I referred to the black reporters in the press corps I presumed I did not need to identify Eisenhower as a white president. Granted this is an extreme example, but it highlights the assumption I had been taught as a white writer: that unless race was mentioned, the person was white. It was the racial equivalent to the older—and now abandoned—grammatical rule that gender, unless specified, was presumed to be male.
Payne’s gift to me, 24 years after her death, was the transformative experience of discovering how much race matters when we whites presume it doesn’t. As an adult I’ve been blessed to have friends from all walks of life and to have worked for African American bosses (both male and female.) But I grew up in a liberal family that clung to the belief that race didn’t matter so one never brought the subject up. In fact, I purposely avoided asking black friends, colleagues, and bosses about it.
Researching Payne’s life gave me permission to raise the questions I thought were impolite to pose to friends. I also became racially sensitive in ways that I have never been before. If I had trouble obtaining archival materials at an African American institute or someone refused to be interviewed I wondered if it were because I was white? (Welcome to feeling like you’re black, I said to myself.)
Lastly I developed a new kind of empathy from spending time with Payne’s letters, diaries, and papers. In researching her story, I often found myself outraged at the racial injustices she faced despite knowing a considerable amount of civil rights history. When I shared my anger with one of Payne’s old friends, she thought it kind of cute. With a maternal look and a pat of her hand, she said she was amused to see me angered at what she had lived with day in and day out.
The book done, I now wear a racial sensitivity on my skin. I have acquired a gut-based, rather than intellectual, understanding from this work. Race matters but we don’t know it because we as whites have such few occasions to learn it.
James McGrath Morris is the author of Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, to be published by Amistad on February 17.