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Thursday, February 7, 2013

February 7, 2013: Remembering Booker and Teddy

[Last year, to honor Black History Month—which was created by my first Memory Day nominee!—, I remembered amazing African American writers: Lucille Clifton, Harlem Renaissance authors, Anna Julia Cooper, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and David Walker. This year, I’ll focus on complex and compelling historical conversations. Please share your suggestions for figures, histories, and other African American and American stories and memories for the weekend post!]
On guess who’s coming to dinner, the White House edition.
In 1901, Booker T. Washington, one of the nation’s most famous and influential educators, political leaders, authors, and icons was invited to dine at the White House with the newly inaugurated President, Theodore Roosevelt. Sounds logical enough—but Washington was an African American,Washington D.C. was still segregated, and “dining” had the connotation (particularly in the South) of social equality more broadly; for all those reasons, and many other social and cultural factors, the invitation and dinner became hugely controversial. Both Roosevelt and Washington were smart enough to know that this would happen, and both apparently hesitated at their respective moments of decision (Roosevelt in sending the invite, Washington in accepting). But both went through with it, and Washington became the first African American to dine publicly with a sitting president.
There would be a couple distinct ways for an AmericanStudier to analyze such an event. One would be to do our own version of what Deborah Davis does in her book Guest of Honor (see also two of the hyperlinks in the prior paragraph): to connect the dinner to many of the possible relevant contexts, from the lives and impacts of the two men to the cultural, social, political, and historical trends that contributed to the dinner’s significance and controversies. Davis focuses on the contexts leading up and during the event’s moment, but it would also be interesting to consider a few from subsequent years: to contrast, for example, Roosevelt’s invitation with one of Woodrow Wilson’s first actions as president, his segregation of the federal government. Roosevelt’s action was informal, intimate, and even, it seems, somewhat impromptu (the two men had a meeting scheduled and he decided to make it a dinner); Wilson’s much more formal and standardized and planned. Does that partly explain why Roosevelt could buck custom and much of popular opinion in the way he did? Does it further indict Wilson, that he thought through his plan to bring Jim Crow to Washington (after promising African American supporters during the campaign that he would fight for equality once elected)? In any case, the comparison would at least provide additional frames through which to analyze each moment and action.
But an AmericanStudies perspective on Booker and Teddy’s dinner might also take a step back, and consider why such small events or moments can have such symbolic resonance in our culture. After all, much of what I said in Monday’s post about George Washington’s conversation with Phillis Wheatley would likewise apply here—this dinner didn’t change a thing in terms of Washington’s status (or that of any African American at the turn of the 20th century), didn’t have the slightest impact on Jim Crow laws or any other institutionalized racisms, didn’t, really, mean anything at all. But on the other hand, we AmericanStudiers tend to believe that narratives and images matter, often at least as much as realities. And if the problem of the 20th century was, as Washington’s peer and sometime-adversary W.E.B. Du Bois put it, the problem of the color line, then at least the Roosevelt-Washington dinner, as an image, as a national narrative, illustrated that it was possible for all Americans, even the most public of them, to cross that line and find some common ground—or at least some good food—together.
Next conversation tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to these figures and this moment? Other Black History Month connections you’d share?

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