How Servitude Fed, Housed, Clothed
and Introduced Us to the Realities of Power
By Daphne Muse
Although people aspire to serve their countries, communities and callings, they don’t necessarily aspire to engage in servitude. While servitude is not unique to African American culture and continues to be practiced in societies around the world, it is brutally and systemically situated in black life and culture, as a result of the European slave trade that began in the 15th century. As black men who came “Up South” to Washington, DC in 1944 and to be warmed by other suns, they housed, fed and clothed us through servitude. As someone who learned how some of the ways in which privilege and power drove the Beltway, and turned the world, for me “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is deeply personal. But I entered the theater with historical fatigue and tremendous trepidation.
Opening with a sweeping arc of history that takes us from a contemporary scene inside the White House, the film segues two centuries back to the murderous brutality of slavery. In a riveting scene played out in a plantation cotton field, we see a young boy witness the point blank murder of his father at the hands of a plantation owner who has just raped his mother. In this moment, I’m transfixed by the remarkable performance of Mariah Carey (Hattie Pearl). Her eyes and body language powerfully convey the pain of that history.
That boy Cecil Gaines would go from the field to the house serving the mistress (Vanessa Redgrave) to becoming a waiter at a fancy country club and eventually Cecil Gaines a White House butler who serves seven presidents across the twentieth century in what was then arguably one of the most powerful ten powerful square miles in the world.
As butlers at the White House and at cocktail parties for the "Emperors of K Street,” dinners and soirees in private homes, elite clubs, embassies and cultural venues along the Eastern Seaboard, my uncle George Y. Muse (Unc) and father Fletcher H. Muse, Sr., themselves two generations out of slavery, were two of the “invisible” men who heard and saw how the architects of 20th century power and opulence bridged the Beltway and branded the Empire. Unc served as a contract butler at the White House from the late 1950s through the first Clinton administration and worked under Eugene Allen, the head butler. Contract butlers were brought on board to augment staff for state dinners, inaugurations and other grand scale events at the White House. Though not a biopic, the film is based around Allen’s life.
Their work took them both into the bowels of politics and power, as they heard, overheard and often did not want to hear decisions sealing the fate of their families, friends and the future of the country, including the planning of coups, sabotaging of civil rights legislation and the aborting of people’s personal dreams. Often dad and Unc knew what was going to be in the Washington Post, Evening Star or New York Times even before the president. But the job came with a protocol and requirement of discretion that mostly sealed their tongues and prevented them from speaking about what they heard, saw or were asked to do.
My dreams of what I thought my parents should have been materialized for my mother as the textile artist she is and late in life for my father. Despite the working class jobs they held, they brought the world home to us through books and periodicals we otherwise would not have known about, access to an array of very interesting resources and at the dinner table where a bottle of Rothschild’s Champagne was paired with a pot of amazing curry or a 1957 Dom Perignon was offered up with collard greens cooked in smoked pig knuckles, accompanied by candied sweet potatoes, fried corn with okra and my dad’s infamous and silky light biscuits. Daddy really knew how to put on the “dawg” and make it bark.
During the day my father worked as an administrative assistant at the Department of Defense and Unc worked in the print shop at the Library of Congress. Both had toiled on the railroad and relished getting off the rails. At night and on weekends they were transformed into butlers by a black tuxedo, hand-tied bow tie and practice of protocol. Whatever we think of these men from our remove, the Beltway Butlers were not “yessa boss, shoe shufflin’ servants”; they carried themselves with a professional poise and dignity often teaching members of the ruling class a thing or two, while schooling them on the idiosyncrasies and social proclivities of world leaders.
In the film, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), James Holloway (Lenny Kravitz) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) make the demanding work of servitude look effortless, as was required by the demands of the job. And the brother man bond is so evident from the kitchen to the card table where they find rare respite from the demands of the day. I felt as though director Lee Daniels’, the crew and actors came right up in one of those Monday night poker games in our basement, as Diana Washington’s soul poured from the Hi-fi. They sat with dad, Unc, Mr. Lynch, and the other butlers around the table, right there in the cut of the cards, hanging on to their every word as they jive talked and brought on the same kind of poker faces that were required to navigate their invisibility as butlers. Almost to a person, these are bone marrow deep performances, where Daniels extracts every ounce of detail to the craft possible. The wives of the butlers are also authentically portrayed across the periods reflected in the film, including the era just as they are poised on the cusp of the whirlwind of the Women’s Movement.
In the butler’s world, some of the most hilarious moments came when they would joke about what it would be like to have a “spook” in the White House. Along with jazz, hard bop and soul piping into the sound system, collard greens would replace asparagus, barbecue sauce Hollandaise, a cure for racism would be found and Africa would be front and center in ways it never had been. Along with the normal hazards that come with carving meat with the precision of a surgeon, carrying heavy trays and synchronizing the removal of plates from the table, these men also had to damn up their bodies against the advances of white women whose eyes and hands wandered across borders and boundaries not theirs to claim. According to stories passed along very late in life by some of the butlers, there were dinner parties held in socially safe houses where men who legislated against debauchery by day deeply engaged in it at night. At intersections like this, butlers really had to render themselves invisible, excusing themselves to cleanup duty or time served for the evening. We harvested many back stories of history, from my father and uncle’s experiences.
But servitude was an economic decision borne out of necessity; options and access for jobs as teachers, doctors and politicians were limited by the strict codes and policies of race. Some of them had sixth grade educations, while others like former White House Chief Butler Alonzo Fields (1933-1953) studied at the New England Conservatory of Music to become a concert singer. In a fashion uncharacteristic to most, Fields kept a journal which can be found in the archives of President Harry S. Truman. That journal served as a field research for his 1961 book My 21 Years at the White House.
Like Lucille Gaines (Oprah Winfrey), arguments ensued around how their lives were being taken over and away from them. My mother went real deep on the matter, when dad informed her that a Mrs. Marshall, one of the women for whom he worked, asked him to Miss Daisy her to her summer home in Alabama. I was also quite perplexed as to why Cold War Hawks and men like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and nuclear scientist Glenn Seaborg called to book parties with dad. My brother Vincent and I wondered if these men did not want their wives talking on the phone with black men and that’s why they instead their wives called. Some also maintained tony pied-à-terres specifically designated for entertaining, unbeknownst to their wives, at places like the Woodner and Watergate Towers.
My cousin Lydia Muse Clemons, a retired Student Accounts Assistant at the National Labor College, AFL-CIO, carries forward a tender set of memories about her father. “During my during my lunch break one day, I took a walk through Lafayette Park (across from White House). My dad was there with his co-workers, waiting to report to work. They had on their white shirts, tuxedo pants and tie (untied around their necks).” Tuxedos were expensive and Georgetown thrift stores were the primary source for their elegant uniforms. “These men, especially my dad, looked so handsome and stately,” notes Lydia.
Unc served at the weddings for Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter’s Luci Baines and Lynda Bird Johnson, and Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia. And it must have been mind blowing in 1963, when he navigated a sea of black people who had been invited by President John F. Kennedy to celebrate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. strategically declined the controversial invitation, in the mix were politicians, members of the black leadership and cultural icons including Urban League Director Whitney Young, Dean of the Black Press corps Simeon Booker, poet Langston Hughes and writer James Baldwin. There also were some powerful black women in attendance including publisher Eunice Johnson, and civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley who would go on to be appointed a Federal Judge by President Johnson in 1966.
One of the highlights in Unc’s life occurred while serving a luncheon in the early 90s. Over the rims of the crystal wine glasses arose the distinct voice of a black man calling out “Unc.” As he looked up, one of our childhood friends Clement Price was in attendance at the luncheon. Price, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of History and Director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers gave him the ubiquitous “gimme some skin bro’” as they embraced. As more blacks began to attend state dinners and other events at the White House, cocktail parties and embassy soirees, the pride quotient lifted as they witnessed blacks sourcing and ascending to their own power.
I remember dad coming home so excited about the fact that the Modern Jazz Quartet had played at a cocktail party; being in the moment when Joe Zawinul brought the house down at the Newport Jazz Festival where dad served a series of parties held at the summer home of heiress Oatsie Leiter; or an opening for Lyrical Abstractionist Sam Gilliam. My father was beside himself, when he learned what white folk were paying for a black man’s art. During one of the parties he served at Mrs. Lieter’s Georgetown home, Leontyne Price was in attendance. Price presented my father with a copy of the program from the opening of the Met at Lincoln Center in 1966. Printed on silk, the program notes Price’s performance as Cleopatra and the choreographic debut for Alvin Ailey. My father gave it to me in 1966 and it now hangs in my home among the more than twelve thousand rare black books, posters, ephemera and art works I’ve collected since being given that piece.
My cousin Sadie Muse Hall, a retiree from DC Parks and Recreation, maintains a collection of memorabilia including place setting cards from state dinners and Christmas cards. Staff and contract butlers often received Christmas cards from presidents. Unc gave me a menu card from a luncheon commemorating First Lady and women’s rights pioneer Eleanor Roosevelt 100th birth and a 1967 Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson’s Christmas card painted by Robert Laessig.
Both Unc and daddy were members of the Private Butlers Association (PBA), an organization cofounded by Leon Thompson in the early 30’s. Thompson served as President Herbert Hoover’s steward in charge of personal affairs. The PBA set the pay scale for the contract butlers and in 1967, they were paid $10.00 an hour for the first three hours and $20.00 an hour thereafter. According to San Francisco City College professor of economics Dr. Marc Kitchel “In today’s economy that $10.00 would equate to an hourly wage of $65.81.” While not the norm, one-hundred dollar tips were not uncommon. While I don’t know what his salary was for his job as an administrative assistant for the Department of Defense, it required him to take on a second job to support our family. In two scenes that simply infuriated me, Gaines takes his unwavering politeness to Chief Usher and overseer RD Warner (Jim Gleason). Gaines goes to him with a request for an increase in wages based on the fact that the butlers, who were all black, made 40% less than any of the white staff overseeing duties related to the preparation and serving of meals. The Chief Usher’s indignant smirk of a “no” to both requests seethes with the hostility catapulted upon black men. But according to William Hamilton who served as the storeroom manager for 55 years, the butlers refusal to serve a state dinner if they did not get a raise, resulted in President Johnson giving the raise.
One reason dad may not have worked at the WH may well have had to do with the pay scale and the fact that white staff were paid more than blacks and there were no tips. At other venues, along with twenty-five to one hundred dollar tips, bottles of premium spirits also were offered up to butlers like my father and uncle for they knew how to rescue a potential culinary disaster or recover a breech in protocol. Rich white folk were not serving soul food at these parties. On more than one occasion dad had to rescue a turtle soup, prepare a Beef Wellington or reconstruct a Lobster Newburg because the cook was drunk or simply did not show. Many of the butlers also were master carvers who could turn a watermelon into a basket of fruit or peel the skin back on a turkey, carve the meat into thin slices and replace the skin, making it appear as though the meat wasn’t even carved. My father also had the kind of palate where he could taste something once and replicate it. I’ll never forget my first ever experience with curry; he made it for my eleventh birthday. He served it with every condiment imaginable including kumquats and Major Grey Chutney. The bliss of that dish still lingers on my palate.
My father leveraged his work quite strategically, but also raised the five of us to question the American dream and the role of black people in it. In 1967, my father called in a favor from California Republican Congressman William Mailliard, a friend of Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Within six months of making the request, my brother Lowell Vincent Muse (now a sound engineer with NPR) was appointed as a page at the Supreme Court. Warren would go on to be appointed Chief Justice in 1969. There Vincent was mentored by Lyndon Johnson appointee Thurgood Marshall, the first known black appointed to the court. My brother Fletcher was fulfilling his passion for aviation by serving in the Air Force as an Electric Power Production Technician. The youngest, David Russell, was still in school.
Both my parents made it clear that racism was the pathology of white people and becoming them was not a goal. The narrative on race was super charged in our home, because dad was as staunch an integrationist, as mom was a segregationist. My mother still washes the colored clothes before the whites. During the summer of 64, I was the help working for Congressman Millard. My mother was livid; but I just wanted to earn enough money to return to college and graduate. At the end of summer, I got a job running data sorting machines and computers at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company and was able to save enough money to finish my last two years at Fisk.
Just as Gaines was caught off guard by his son’s turn towards activism, my father was not prepared for the reality of the results of us challenging the American dream. In 1965, I became deeply entrenched in movement politics, like Gaines son Louis (David Oyelowo). As a student at Fisk University in Nashville, epicenter for sit-ins, I combined my scholarship with activism and attended meetings and workshops led by Diane Nash, Reverend Jim Lawson and foot soldiers from SNCC. While others were freedom riding, I was building my courage to step in the bolder arena running mimeograph machines to reproduce flyers announcing SNCC-related events on campus and in Nashville. Lawson and Nash also conducted riveting workshops which introduced me to the incendiary policies fueling the War on Vietnam.
While the butler is not a civil rights film, the arc of the movement comes front and center through the son who is portrayed as a freedom rider, confidant of Dr. King, black panther, candidate for congress in Tennessee and then as an anti-apartheid activist. Here we get to see how the anti-apartheid policies of Ronald Regan whose wife Nancy (Jane Fonda) invites Cecil and Lucille to a state dinner. At one point, Reagan says to Gaines, “You’re just like family,” one of those patronizing remarks that sends me into a tailspin and to which I always want to holla, “Does that translate into an inheritance?” Cecil and his son reunite shortly after he bears witness to Reagan’s horrific policies against South Africa.
What I needed the film to do was make it resounding clear that these holders of power simply did not have a change of heart, when it came to the legislative shifts in racial policies. The leadership and foot soldiers of SNCC, bold strategists including Bayard Rustin, relentless women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker, the Black Panthers and countless unnamed community organizers across the country inherently made that possible. But those relationships with presidents and other policy makers in some instances had influence as well.
A couple of years after graduating from Fisk University in 1967, I became deeply involved with Drum and Spear Bookstore founded by SNCC legends including Ralph Featherstone, Charlie Cobb, Courtland Cox and Judy Richardson. There my commitment to struggle deepened as I studied and digested the canon of black life and culture. As a result of my work at Drum and Spear, I was assigned my own FBI agent, Jim South. South used to follow me from Drum and Spear to my apartment in Adams Morgan in his unmarked car. What I came to appreciate about being escorted to and from work was that I was often carrying thousands of dollars in receipts from the store through a neighborhood rife with drug dealing, robberies and assaults.
Things were growing increasing frightening and heady for my parents and their job security, when my brother Leonard’s name showed up in a 1969 report from the House on Un-American Activities. My parents’ fright and fury continued to ricochet off the walls, when I was summoned in 1970 to testify before the Grand Jury. Jail and the idea of raising my bail were pounding against their skulls like chain gang hammers. Two agents showed up to question dad about my activities. After moving to Arizona in late 1970, a white hippie mail man, not in uniform, delivered my diploma and Scrabble set to my parents’ home. The FBI failed to return my books on Marcus Garvey and WEB Dubois, but not my letters from Shirley Graham Dubois, Mrs. Amy Jacques Garvey or Helga Rodgers, the wife of J.A. Rogers.
Like Eugene Allen, Unc and daddy stood in some of history’s most compelling and gut wrenching moments observing it being made, distorted and destroyed by the “stench” of the tides rising from the Potomac, the Pentagon and corridors of K Street. In 1980, when Grover Norquist’s hand was all up in the mix in Nicaragua and Angola, and without going into specifics, my father told me that a young upstart would come to wreak havoc on the political landscape. While protocol and discretion were practiced, it came at a high cost: Dickel, Jack Daniel’s and when he could get it Georgia Moonshine tortured and consumed him. But not before he got to strike his own thunder.
Whether you want to call it a twist of historical irony or long range strategy, in 1981 dad fled DC. After Ronald Reagan was elected the stench of the Potomac increased exponentially and the growing visibility of Henry Kissinger, for whom he adamantly refused to serve parties, was overpowering. He returned to Cuthbert, Georgia where he was born and in the early 90s was elected to his own seat of power, as a commissioner for Randolph County and a board member for the Georgia Preservation Society. There he removed the mask and was able to place his unbridled tongue, with a magnitude of forthrightness, on the direct descendants of the white folks who had enslaved our family.
Unc, others who served at the White House, my father, other members of the Private Butlers Association and Jack Valenti may well have thought highly of this riveting and superbly acted film that pays tribute to black men who toiled to make servitude appear effortless and casts the arc of the Civil Rights Movements, through the lens of a tumultuous father-son relationship. For several years, Valenti, confidant of Lyndon Johnson, arch enemy of J. Edgar Hoover and former president of the Motion Picture Association of America, hosted an annual film screening and dinner party for the members of the Private Butlers Association and their wives at the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters in DC.
It is clear to me that there are people within this team who have the vision and capacity for bringing us films that present the passion, brilliance and range of dimensions with which black people live life. I so hope that Wil Haygood’s book on Thurgood Marshall makes its way onto the screen, just as his Washington Post article on Eugene Allen did. We also have to see more from Ava DuVernay (The Middle of Nowhere), Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust). This fall, Dave Talbert’s “Baggage Claim,” Neil Drumming’s “Big Words” and “12 Years a Slave” by Steven McQueen will hit the big screen. I’m also eager to see what filmmakers who are now establishing themselves like Ryan Cooger, Kahlil Joseph and L. Onye Anyanwu are going to bring to the table. Since the seventies I’ve wanted to buy a ticket to see a feature film on the incredible life of poet Langston Hughes; compelling historical and contemporary love stories (especially one set during the movement that then progresses into the generations born of those parents); and a quirky comedy about a black woman who started out as a dancer and literally takes a quantum leap into becoming a Theoretical Physicist, where she makes even bolder discoveries about the universe in which we live.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet. Her commentaries have aired on NPR, appeared at Portside, in the Washington Post and Black Scholar. She spent six years writing for Breaking Barriers, a collaborative project between Scholastic and the Office of Education at Major League Baseball. For several decades she served on the faculty at UC Berkeley and Mills College. During her service at Mills, a daughter of the family where she was the help was a student. She blogs at www.daphnemuse.blogspot.com.
©Daphne Muse 2013