Why I Remain A Negro

Why I Remain A Negro

The Saturday Review of Literature
pages 13-

Walter White, National Secretary
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

THE SCENE was a New York duplex apartment. The people were liberals, economically as well as intellectually well off. They were discussing the race question. I had been invited to speak. One of the women, listening, seemed agitated by something I had said. She scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to another woman, a woman whose skin was reddish brown,, a woman who was probably colored. “Is Mr. White white or colored?” the message inquired. The other scribbled an answer and passed it back. “I am Mrs. White,” the reply said. The white woman, reading it, became excited. Hastily she penciled a comment: “What a wonderful talk! This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to hear him.”

I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me. Not long ago I stood one morning on a subway platform in Harlem. As the train came in I stepped back for safety. My heel came down upon the toe of the man behind me. I turned to apologize to him. He was a Negro, and his face as he stared at me was hard and full of the piled-up bitterness of a thousand lynchings and a million nights in shacks and tenements and “nigger towns.” “Why don’t you look where you’re going?” he said sullenly. “You white folks are always trampling on colored people.” Just then one of my friends came up and asked how the fight had gone in Washington—there was a filibuster against legislation for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. The Negro on whose toes I had stepped listened, then spoke to me penitently.

“Are you Walter White of the NAACP? I’m sorry I spoke to you that way. I thought you were white.” I am not white. There is nothing within my mind and heart which tempts me to think I am. Yet I realize acutely that the only characteristic which matters to either the white or the colored race—the appearance of whiteness—is mine. White is the rejection of all color; black is the absorption of  every shade.  There is magic in a white skin; there is tragedy, loneliness, exile, in a black skin. Why then do I insist that I am a Negro, when nothing compels me to do so but myself?…

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