Exploring the world of Evelyn White
An intimate look at an unconventional journalist
January 29, 2016, 10:00 am AST
“Exhaustion and bewilderment” are the words journalist Evelyn White uses as she describes the perplexing feeling she had sitting in her home in Oakland, California, unable to move. She had spent 10 years working on a book that had initially been contracted for four. White, immobile, was waiting for a “cosmic force to deliver the ending” of her book. Distressed, but reluctant to take a shortcut, White was determined to fight the impulse to manufacture some “phony” ending for her book, Alice Walker: A Life, a biography of author Alice Walker.
“I was looking up, asking myself, ‘Why don’t I have it? Where is it? Where is my ending?’”
Finally, in a random phone call one day with Walker, her ending, unexpectedly, was delivered. As Walker discussed a recent event, something clicked for White and she knew her hard work over the past 10 years had paid off.
According to White, this biography is her life’s greatest accomplishment; one she refers to as a “spiritual test.” She says if she had given up and published the book before that fateful phone call, she would not have been able to live with herself. Pointing to her partner, Joanne Bealy, White says, “She would have had to talk me back to life.”
“I have to be worthy of all the work and effort I put into this. Maybe no one else will know, but I will know,” she adds.
This sense of integrity, and her belief in fate, are consistent themes throughout White’s career. Now living in Halifax, White was born to an African-American family in Chicago in 1954, but as a young girl she moved to Gary, Indiana – which, she mentions, is Michael Jackson’s hometown – and attended a predominantly black elementary school. Famous names like Jackson’s are a recurring trend in White’s timeline. For example, White received a scholarship to Wellesley College, the all-girls’ college in Massachusetts from which Hillary Clinton graduated; she met Whitney Houston’s father at a jazz club in the ’80s; she once pretended to be the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. in order to meet Aretha Franklin; and she’s even interviewed Rosa Parks and Oprah.
White’s stories are fascinating. She describes scenes with animated hands, and recalls them with extensive detail, as if they’ve happened recently; she pauses frequently for emphasis and impersonates characters in her stories. But perhaps surprisingly, these famous names are not at the forefront of her conversation. Instead, the subjects of her most meaningful stories are ordinary people. A general assignment reporter throughout most of her career, White’s strong sense of identity and her fearless persona have allowed her to transcend labels. A skim through White’s work makes it evident that when talent and fate meet, the combination can lead to impressive works.
Given her personality, it’s no surprise she didn’t take a typical career path. Before White graduated with a master’s in journalism from Columbia University in New York in 1985, she majored in theatre and had moved to Denmark to pursue that path. White’s theater background influenced her unique writing style, and taught her to put great emphasis on powerful endings.
“I was once in the room with the director and he said that the curtain call is the last image you leave the audience with, and that it should be as professional, clean and tailored as everything else that has come before it.”
After she left Denmark and moved to Seattle, her love for books and her writing skills eventually led her to the journalism world. While juggling a part-time job and receiving what she calls “magic money” from writing book reviews, White was approached by Faith Conlon, the publisher at a small feminist press called Seal Press, and offered an advance to write her first book.
“I realized that somebody would pay me to write, before even writing a word,” says White.
White published Chain, Chain, Change the year she graduated from Columbia; the same press later published The Black Women’s Health Book, which White edited.
“There hasn’t been a book in the United States published like it since,” says Conlon.
After finishing up an internship at the Wall Street Journal and getting her masters in journalism, White bought a one-way ticket to California to attend a job fair for minority journalists, which landed her a job at the San Francisco Chronicle. White says she entered the professional journalism world at a time where America was welcoming diversity in the mid-’80s, and she witnessed this through the eyes of the paper’s executive editor, who had also graduated from Columbia.
“I could see it in his eyes. He was saying, ‘Wow, the world has changed. This black woman with the Afro has the same college degree that I have.’”
White started at the paper in 1985 and left in 1995, but proved to her editors she was an exceptional reporter.
Patricia Holt, who was the book review editor at the paper for 17 years, says, “I thought she was kind of wasted at the Chronicle and she was just too good for us. I actually hoped she would get a better job.”
More than just a ‘black reporter’
Although successful at the Chronicle, White had to overcome stereotypes to avoid becoming their “star minority reporter.” She says her identity as an African-American woman meant something different to editors than it meant to her.
“My editor at the time wanted me to do a stake out in a crack house and I said, ‘That is not going to happen!’ I can still see his face. I said, ‘Send one of the white guys to live in the crack house; I am not doing it.’”
White says it was important for her to resist covering stories that pigeonholed her, because she didn’t – and still doesn’t – feel it’s her responsibility to cover stories about a particular community out of obligation. One editor, she remembers, told her, “They thought they could turn you into a white man or their star black reporter, but you really surprised them, because you didn’t do anything that they wanted you to do.”
In some instances, as with her book on black women’s health, White says she did believe it was essential that the editor be a black woman, but she feels reporters of any ethnicity should be able to cover any stories, as long as they do their research and collaborate with people from the communities they cover.
Frankline Agbor, executive producer of Diversity Magazine in Canada, which reports on diverse communities not covered by mainstream media, agrees with White.
“We have one contributor who’s of Asian descent, for example. He covers some Asian stories, but he is passionate about covering a variety of stories. Sometimes people from a specific culture have a better understanding to tell stories, but anyone that is passionate about a story can tell any story,” says Agbor.
Don Curry, a former journalism professor at Canadore College in North Bay, Ont., and now executive director of the North Bay and District Multicultural Centre, led a national project from 2006-2007 with five journalism schools across Canada (King’s College, Concordia, Carleton, Ryerson and the University of Regina) to recruit more visible minority students to university journalism programs after he realized there was a lack of diversity in the media.
“It may not even be top of mind for some visible minority people (to enter this profession) unless they hear from a professor at the university, so it opens up the possibility,” says Curry, who believes that newsrooms should reflect the community.
An annual survey by the American Society of News Editors shows that U.S. newsrooms do not reflect the community when it comes to representation of visible minorities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37 per cent of the population in 2015 was made up of people who were visible minorities. That same year, just 12.76 per cent of journalists working in daily newspaper newsrooms were visible minorities, a number that had barely changed in more than a decade (in 2002 it was 12.07 per cent).
Hugo Rodrigues, former president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says although the association generally advocates for fair representation, it did not “specifically tackle it,” during his time at the association, and this is reflected in the numbers. A 2010 study of the Toronto area showed that only 4.8 per cent of executives in media organizations were members of visible minority groups in Canada. The 2011 National Household Survey said 1 in 5 Canadians was a visible minority.
Joshunda Sanders, a journalist who worked at the Chronicle shortly after White left, and author of How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media, says instead of being treated as a “young journalist with potential,” Sanders was treated as “a black journalist whose trajectory was limited” by race and gender.
Sanders says her experience with institutionalized racism felt like “a personal failure.” In contrast, White says she never internalized negative messages about race because she had a strong foundation as a kid in a black community. She admits she was lucky to have been taught by black teachers who allowed her to build a healthy sense of self-esteem, and who shaped White’s sense of opportunity. These qualities, she says, helped her overcome racism.
The art of ‘looking up’
White was also known at the Chronicle for her observant eye, which allowed her to notice things and people another reporter might overlook. This earned her respect from her editors, and allowed her to transcend the labels and racist rhetoric she sometimes encountered. After an original idea landed her a front-page story on the San Francisco Chronicle, White was granted the freedom to pursue the topics of her choice.
“I knew that I was seeing certain things that maybe other journalists didn’t see. I always like to go one step further or deeper than the immediate. I feel that’s the talent I bring to the enterprise, and with that, it’s my responsibility to do it with ethics, accuracy and honesty.”
White’s colleagues would consistently tease her for leaving her desk and conducting interviews in person, but White says it’s important to be there and “look up,” both figuratively and literally. So far, this practice has led to the creation of some of her favorite pieces.
Adding to her talent, says Linda Villarosa, journalist and a friend of White’s, is that White also “knows how to dig out the deeply emotional parts.”
Amelia Smith, White’s transcriptionist for the Alice Walker biography, says White has an innate ability to put her subjects at ease. Smith says half an hour into a long interview, she can hear White’s interviewees relax.
“It was always fun to listen to how, in the beginning of an interview, the person would be very wary, but by the end of the interview they were best friends with Evelyn, and it was genuine,” says Smith.
Across the board, White’s editors, friends and colleagues note her “radiant smile” and “warm personality.”
In an email interview with the King’s Journalism Review, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, says working with White on her biography “was one of the best and brightest experiences,” adding that White is a “truth-teller to her soul.”
These compliments speak to White’s character, but White notes that she has never intended to climb the corporate ladder in her career.
“I don’t want to be a famous reporter and I don’t want to specialize and I don’t want to be on a press plane. I never bought into that. It never interested me and I knew there was a price to pay.”
The price? A financial disadvantage, but White says the people she has met through her writing, from Gloria Steinem to a blind woman named Sylvia, have been far more rewarding than a big paycheque.
It’s no coincidence that White lived a few streets away from Alice Walker’s place in San Francisco, which Walker says felt like “the universe called out the perfect biographer for the job,” or that White met Whitney Houston’s father in a jazz club. Somehow, fate seems to pursue White – and she embraces it.
White now waits for the universe to deliver signs for her next project, which she vaguely describes as “some sort of essay.”
As a cassette tape titled “Whitney Houston” lays on her coffee table, White says, “I have a few contacts, and it may come together, but I don’t want to force it.”
Main photo: Journalist and biographer Evelyn White at home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo by Dina Lobo.