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by Clarence Lusane

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-87286-532-7
Publisher: City Lights

Comprehensive, decidedly non-neutral, history of the African-American presence in American political life through perhaps its most representative place.

“The black history of the White House,” writes scholar and journalist Lusane (Political Science/American Univ.; Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice: Foreign Policy, Race, and the New American Century, 2006, etc.), “begins in the pre-revolutionary period, during which future occupants of the White House first laid the foundation of what was to become more than two-centuries of race-based cruelty, exclusion, and violence.” That sentence speaks directly to the outlook of this book, which carefully documents the travails of a polity in which African-Americans were so essential and prevalent, but that struggled endlessly to maintain, then dismantle, the institution of slavery, and then could never quite accept the notion that all people are created equal—an idea put to pen by Thomas Jefferson even as his slave Richard “quietly brought him his nightly tea.” Lusane is unsparing. In his analysis, an icon such as Dolley Madison is found deeply wanting for having reneged on her promise to free her “mulatto man Paul,” instead selling him at a bargain price—even after he had paid her to secure his freedom. The author capably uses the tools of sociology and history, but he seems most at home at the intersection of politics and popular culture. He writes engagingly of the long tradition of African-American opera stars appearing at the White House through the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, a tradition revived only during Franklin Roosevelt’s first administration; and of the later tradition of jazz performances at the White House, one that only George H.W. Bush did not observe (though son George W. Bush did). Lusane closes with a consideration of African-American efforts to secure a political place within the White House, from Marcus Garvey to Shirley Chisholm, Dick Gregory, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and, of course, Barack Obama.

A lively, opinionated survey, telling a story that the textbooks too often overlook.