Do you know when the first Black American man had dinner at the White House?
That was back in 1901, October 16th on a Wednesday night. Teddy Roosevelt, fresh from inheriting the presidency after his predecessor was assassinated, had been living in the White House for less than a month. He invited one of his then advisors, Booker T. Washington, to dinner after they’d spent the afternoon together. They probably ate something boring like a medium well steak, baked potatoes, and maybe a nice apple pie for dessert. Something pretty ordinary. But for a lot of people, particularly those in the south, there was nothing ordinary about that meal.
Folks – both black and white - just about lost their minds.
When he accepted that invitation to apple pie and presidential conversation, Booker T. Washington didn't set out to cause mass aneurysms all over the south, but that's basically what happened. That ordinary dinner unleashed what would be the equivalent of a Twitter storm today. A guy in Missouri was even so butt hurt about the whole thing that he wrote and published a little poem about it. Spoiler alert: he used the n word. A lot.
Neither of those men at the dinner table, Teddy Roosevelt or Booker T. Washington, may have realized the depth of the hatred of Americans in the south for Black people, for the very idea of a Black man having access to something that most of them didn’t – a pleasant and relatively innocuous dinner at the presidential mansion built by slaves. But the two men understood the level of that hatred the day after the dinner. The point was rammed so forcefully home to Roosevelt that he tried to backtrack. We didn’t really have dinner, he tried to say, it was more like a lunch. Hell, my wife and kids weren’t even there.*
For many, an African American’s equal access to everyday rights and privileges was unthinkable. The fact of this Black man dining in the White House, an honor reserved for the best among men, was lynchable.
Mr. Washington wasn't there to dance a jig and head on home through the back entrance afterward; he was there to dine as an equal to the President of the United States. People foamed at the mouth. They wrote letters. Some just about sent a lynching party north of the Mason-Dixon line to set things straight.
This is the world in which my novella, A Delicate Affair, takes place. The couple at the center of that affair, Golden and Leonie, find each other and make a way toward love despite the obstacles around them. Golden, a man from the south, is eager to put his violent past behind him and embrace the beauty who challenges him. Leonie, the beauty from the north, learns that the future she has accepted for herself isn’t the only one possible. They tumble into love, knowing their world - like ours - is far from perfect, but they create a happiness for themselves despite it all. They survive, they thrive, they love.
Over a hundred years after that first ordinary meal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Barack Obama dared to have his dinner in the White House. Like Booker T. Washington, he was invited by merit alone to the most exclusive dinner table in America, and some haven't stopped trying to lynch him for it yet. And, like Golden Worth, he is wrapped in an unshakable love that has carried him through the best and worst of times. He survived. He still loves.
*Wikipedia article (under “Reception.”)