Colored Memories: A Biographer's Quest for the Elusive Lester A. Walton

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Lester A. Walton was a well-known public figure in his day. An African American journalist, cultural critic, diplomat, and political activist, he was an adviser to presidents and industrialists in a career that spanned the first six decades of the twentieth century. He was a steadfast champion of democracy and lived to see the passage of major civil rights legislation. But one word best describes Walton today: forgotten.

Exploring the contours of this extraordinary life, Susan Curtis seeks to discover why our collective memory of Walton has failed. In a unique narrative of historical research, she recounts a fifteen-year journey, from the streets of Harlem and “The Ville” in St. Louis to scattered archives and obscure public records, as she uncovers the mysterious circumstances surrounding Walton’s disappearance from national consciousness. And despite numerous roadblocks and dead ends in her quest, she tells how she came to know this emblematic citizen of the American Century in surprising ways.

In this unconventional book—a postmodern ghost story, an unprecedented experiment in life-writing—Curtis shares her discoveries as a researcher. Relating her frustrating search through long-overlooked documents to discover this forgotten man, she offers insight into how America’s obsession with race has made Walton’s story unwelcome. She explores the treachery, duplicity, and archival accidents that transformed a man dedicated to the fulfillment of American democracy into a shadowy figure.

Combining anecdotal memories with the investigative instincts of the historian, Curtis embraces the subjectivity of her research to show that what a society forgets or suppresses is just as important as what it includes in its history.  Colored Memories is a highly original work that not only introduces readers to a once-influential figure but also invites us to reconsider how we view, understand, and preserve the past.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Colored Memories is immensely important, one of the most important critical biographies to emerge in recent years. Sophisticated and subtle, it may well serve as a handbook for future generations of biographers and historians who grapple with and seek to recover individuals from the past."—John Stauffer, author of The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race 

“This book is a fine work of historical detection. Curtis has dug deeply in sources all over the country and found as much about this elusive man as anyone is ever likely to find. Her tale of how she sifted through old documents—often doing so in a way that allowed her to find material earlier archivists had considered insignificant—invigorates her prose and allows the reader to understand how history itself (particularly a biography of a man who was marginalized by his race) is an elusive thing that calls for creativity, as well as hard work.”—Bruce Clayton, author of Praying for Base Hits: An American Boyhood

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826217868
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 4/17/2008
  • Edition description: 15 illustrations, bibliography, index
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Curtis is Professor of History and American Studies at Purdue University. She is the author of A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture, Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin, and The First Black Actors on the Great White Way, all published by the University of Missouri Press.

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Table of Contents

Pt. I Encountering a Ghost

Remembering Walton 3

Ch. 1 Lester and Me 11

Ch. 2 Mysteries in the Archives 33

Pt. II Treachery and Duplicity

Race Man 79

Ch. 3 Capitalizing Negro 84

Ch. 4 Pictures of His Face 91

Ch. 5 A Passing Comment 108

Ch. 6 The Crisis on the Links 111

Ch. 7 Something Doin' 124

Ch. 8 Some Trip 134

Pt. III The Man Behind the Scenes

Representation 151

Ch. 9 Representing the Democratic Party 156

Ch. 10 Representing the United States 176

Ch. 11 Representing Liberia 206

Pt. IV Trauma

Reenactment 229

Ch. 12 Escape of the Kaffirs 233

Ch. 13 Exodus 246

Bibliography 273

Index 285

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A Great Book that needs to be read!

    I really enjoyed reading and thinking about Colored Memories. I hope that people will discover this book much like the author discovered Lester Walton. I think that this is a significant biography that helps us understand the progress we have made as Americans. I chose to focus on the positive aspects of his story that helped pave the way to today's leaders and cultural workers. The author's struggles to understand and find meaning in Lester Walton's story are useful and well described to biographer's who may follow in her footsteps someday.
    I may not completely agree with her thesis and there are probably more questions to be asked about her assumptions she still addresses an important issue in our history about why Lester Walton was lost. It seemed to be that most of her assumptions about American history are accepted in today's baseline liberal analysis done by the institutional elite. This is a bit troubling for me because it excludes a healthy dialogue between progressives and conservatives since her assumptions demand that we accept the liberal sketch of modernity and ignore the positive aspects of our history. Is cultural history solely to point out the injustices done? Perhaps this is a generational thing and I won't be too harsh about her self-flaggelation. Growing up colorblind in the age of Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan and race not being an issue only shows our progress in popular culture. Of course now we have a President that incapsulates the egalitarian progress that Lester Walton fought so hard for in his own way. To quote the lead singer of the British progressive rock band Coldplay after their live perfomance on SNL, "Barack Obama!" pretty much says it all on how far we've come. It would be interesting to speculate on what Lester Walton would think of Alicia Keys and Jay-Z's Empire State singing "New York concrete jungle where dreams are made of" and are currently playing in the I-PODs and I-Phones of millions of youth. Perhaps millions will one day discover Lester Walton and we can all be proud.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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