By Gary Rawlins, Black Books and Reviews
Barack Obama’s inauguration was a cathartic moment for a nation still haunted by a malignant racist past. A black man had been sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. At the very least, voters had partially removed a tumor from the body politic. Until that cold January day, the thought of an African-American ensconced in the Oval Office was febrile black fantasy.
How far the nation has progressed racially is captured in Guest of Honor, Deborah Davis’ account of a White House dinner engagement in 1901 that shocked the nation. On Oct. 16 of that year, Booker T. Washington dined at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt and his family.
At the time of the dinner, the two men had formed a clandestine working relationship to tackle race issues. Careful to communicate through back channels, Washington would offer advice on a range of topics, including political appointments in the South.
In a feat of compressed storytelling, Davis covers the rise and fall of their controversial relationship. She moves gracefully through the lives of the two leaders, seesawing back and forth. From opposite ends of American society, they reach the pinnacle of their segregated worlds. Born to privilege, the boisterous Roosevelt, called T.R. in the book, maneuvers his way to the White House. Born a mulatto slave, the cautious Washington, called Booker T., hews a path to Tuskegee Institute.
Davis explains that there was historical precedent for their relationship. “By joining forces the two men would be emulating Abraham Lincoln’s famous political partnership with the black statesman Frederick Douglass.”
Roosevelt’s respect for Washington was sealed after reading his autobiography, Up from Slavery. Fond as he was of Washington, Roosevelt was no unbiased beckon. The age of natural slavery and scientific racism had done much to corrupt the perceptual terrain between blacks and whites.
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