Miles's Reviews > Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation

Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis
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Feb 21, 13

Read in February, 2013

The gobsmacking racism of America still has the capacity to shock when we experience it anew. I knew of Booker T. Washington, but had never paid close attention to his story. Author Deborah Davis does a marvelous job of telling the parallel personal and political histories of Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, one born to privilege, and one born in slavery, and the political alliance that flourished between them. That alliance led to an (almost) off-hand and natural invitation to Washington to join the Roosevelt family at the White House for dinner early in his administration. Following the dinner, the firestorm across the South, and the apoplectic outrage at the very idea of a black man dining as a social equal with a white man's family, is just incredible to behold. For anyone who has their eyes and ears open to the racist rhetoric and attitudes of (some of) the opponents of Barack Obama, it is perfectly obvious that today's racists are little changed from 1901's. There is an irredentist racist core to this nation that cannot countenance African Americans as social equals, or see them as having any place at the White House, whether as a guest of the President, or as a President. It is the specific horror of ante-bellum southerners at the idea of social equality and "miscegenation" that is really the most visceral and telling aspect of the whole affair - it exposes the sick emotive heart of racism.

Davis' use of the White House dinner as a framing device is really a perfect way to tell the two life stories as they move through their separate political careers toward that fateful night and beyond it. The dinner itself was, by all records, calm and unremarkable, although Washington was acutely aware that he was on new social ground. The firestorm that followed was of another order altogether, taking everyone by surprise. TR was not entirely noble. He backed away somewhat from the event, minimizing it, suggesting that it was less than it was, perhaps only "lunch" or perhaps only a business meeting. And Booker T. Washington was mindful not to do or say anything that would harm his alliance with the President. A full throated civil rights defense, a full throated endorsement of social equality, was not heard. Both TR and Washington could hardly believe the maelstrom that their slight extension of their working political alliance into the "social" realm of a family dinner created, and they judiciously backed away from its implications.

The book is not about the dinner, so much as the careers of two men who lived in parallel. The dinner is at the center of the book and the event epitomizes and frames the horror of ante-bellum racist America, and the occasional small signs of progress that dotted the landscape. It's a quick read, and thoroughly enjoyable. I now know a lot more about both Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington than I did before.
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