“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” hits theaters nationwide today. The film is based on the true story of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served eight different presidents over the course of a 34-year career. Allen’s story is one of servitude set against the backdrop of years of political change, and it represents the unique view that black service workers have had at the White House since its construction. In the book “The Black History of the White House,” American University history professor Clarence Lusane outlines some of this story. From the hundreds of black enslaved workers who helped build the White House to the countless others who have toiled over the years in its back rooms and kitchens, Lusane lifts up the veil on decades of untold history. I spoke to Lusane about why this moment is an important one.I don't know about y'all, but here's what I think:
Why is the history of black labor in the White House important to tell—especially at a time when we do have a black president?
I think that’s exactly the reason why. When Barack Obama was running for president, there were of course lots of stories about what it would mean if he won. But what was missing in almost all of the reports was the longer history of African-Americans who had actually not only worked in the White House, but actually had built the White House—people who were slaves as well as people who were free. So part of my motivation was to give a context for the significance of Obama coming into the White House. He wasn’t the first African-American and, in fact, when you look at the history of the White House and its relationship with black people, it gives you a lot of information about the history of race in the country.
...What else should we know about this history?
There were other black butlers at the White House who existed for many years. There was a butler called Alonso Fields who worked there for more than two decades. He wrote a book called “My 21 Years at the White House.” There was another black butler there named John Strickland who worked there for 43 years. And then there were women who worked there, principally as maids. One very famous one, Lilian Rodgers Parks, wrote a book called “My 30 Years Backstairs at the White House.” And so there are some published works that give you at least a sense of what people’s daily work life was like at the White House. What’s notable is that most of those books tend to be very apolitical. Part of working in the White House was to be discreet, to basically be invisible. … Regardless of what kind of craziness is going on politically right in front of you, you don’t have an opinion. So they’re making all kinds of racist statements and whatever, and your job is to know what your job is. But of course that creates a kind of dissonance because you’re watching this. What comes across in these books is that dissonance where people witness history being made but could not intervene and could not even comment on it at the time except that they later wrote about it in their memoirs. (Source)
When it comes to subject matter like black butlers in white houses, I want documentaries. I want well-researched, well-written documentaries chronicling these historical characters, repleted with interviews and commentary by members of modern brown academia. And as for those memoirs listed above, those aren't meant to be mined by Hollywhite for pain porn and mutli-million dollar paychecks. They simply need to be on mandatory reading lists for schools all across America - end of story.
Now, where 21st Century film and entertainment are concerned...when I pay the ludicrous amount of money it costs to go see a film these days, I better see Idris Alba being large in and in charge, manning a Jaeger and taking out a Kaiju by his damn self. I better see Chiwetel Ejiofor play a futuristic government operative who's weapon of choice is a friggin' sword. I want to see Gina Torres say, "Fuck it," and rush headlong into a pack of crazed, cannibalistic Reavers with nothing but a damn blade. I want to see Naomie Harris rescue (a sweaty, shirtless) Rain 2-3 times as they stay one step ahead of a bad-ass clan of ninjas.
I need to be entertained, energized, and empowered by what's going on around me in the present day and in the endless possibilities of the future.
But that's just me. How about you?