The Black White House

Posted on January 25, 2011

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The Langston Room in what is becoming one of my favorite DC hangouts – Busboys & Poets – was filled to the brim last night with folks anxious to hear the remarks of scholar and author Clarence Lusane. His recently-released book, The Black History of the White House, was the subject of the talk and probably what brought so many people out on such a frigid evening.

The Busboys’ 14th Street location is so picturesque I can’t stand it. I may have to make a gathering space like that a requirement for any town I choose to live in from now on. As soon as you walk in, you see a small maze of a bookstore with window seating for perusal to your wide left; a lougie, couchie area filled with folks interacting both with their laptops and one another to your sharp left; a bar good for cocktails and espressos alike in front of you; a mixture of tables, chairs, booths, and loungie furniture to your right; the smell of Busboys’ great eats all around; and then you head back to the event-area: the Langston Room.

Needless to say, this separated cove is named for one of Americas best-known busboys-turned-poets, Langston Hughes. The walls are filled with artsie images of American cultural history, the tables and booths are situated both for communal eating and viewing the platform, and at the front of the room is the narrow but decisive stage. Yesterday, the room was so thick with people of all walks of life, even the stage was flanked with onlookers. The spot was full, but cozy.

Dr. Lusane proved to be an entertaining speaker. He allotted quite a bit of time for remarks about the text, questions and answers, and a book-signing at the end. Afterwards, as usual, patrons were free to hang out a bit, order more food, and enjoy the fellowship.

A book entitled The Black History of the White House required some explanation, but Lusane dealt with this effectively. He told us that while he set out to accomplish a work in the history of Black folks in the Executive Mansion, most of the research he ended up performing had been rooted in conversations he’d had with regular people who recalled that their triple great aunt or grandfather’s cousin had worked in the White House. Lusane then went about the work of digging into archives, doing interviews, and coming up with the stories of real people with real lives and real families who’d worked for American presidents and their kin. Since 12 of the first 16 presidents had been slave-holders, Lusane started with fascinating stories of enslaved people including Martha Washington’s  servant who, upon learning that she’d be offered as a wedding gift to a friend of Mrs. Washington, ran away to New Hampshire and remained a fugitive for the balance of her life. Hercules, Thomas Jefferson’s talented chef, was only allowed to purchase his own freedom once he trained another slave to prepare meals to the President’s liking. Lusane deftly recounted that when it was decided that the District of Columbia would be the new nation’s permanent capitol, the swampy land needed laborers to fill its dank terrain, chop down trees, remove logs, and literally build the infrastructure from the ground up. And such back-breaking work was performed by none other than enslaved people. I admit: I’d long known that enslaved people had built the Capitol Building and other structures that stand in Washington till this day, but I’d never even thought about the reality that real people with real lives literally turned the city from a wilderness to a nation’s headquarters.

Lusane recounted the presence of other Black folks in the White House as well, including the first Black Secret Service agent, Abraham Bolden, who’d worked for President Kennedy and had been privy to other assassination plots against him; and even Booker T. Washington, the first Black person to be invited to the White House on equal terms (i.e. for dinner), which caused much controversy and had been called a “damnable outrage” by a Memphis publication. In all, hundreds of Black Americans had spent time in the White House before Barack Obama became President. According to Lusane, it’s true that Obama stands on the shoulders of Lincoln and Kennedy, but he also stands on the backs of the many Black people who served and visited the mansion long before he ever arrived.

By the time I rushed back to Busboys’ bookstore to purchase this remarkable title, the last book had already been sold. I was assured, though, that another shipment was forthcoming. I look forward to my impending purchase and the pleasure of reading such an important account of part of our nation’s history.

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