by Wil Haygood
When you think of mythological heroes, perhaps you think of the mighty Hercules, or Perseus, mounted on his winged horse Pegasus, swooping in to save Andromeda.
Whatever comes to mind, you might agree that what too often goes unrecognized are the humble, unassuming and unsung stories of those among us, whose daily lives, lived with patience, dedication, and ardor achieve their own mythical heroism.
In my mind Eugene Allen’s story is nothing less than a hero’s tale, forming its own distinctly American folklore in the imagination – an odyssey that took one man from the sprawling plantation homes of Virginia to the heart of America’s capital, Mount Olympus, from the horrors of the Jim Crow South to the inauguration of America’s first black president.
Who was ‘The Butler’?
Unerringly professional and deeply patriotic, Allen worked in the White House for 34 years from 1952 to 1986 with an unyielding sense of service to his country. That track record is unusual for most jobs, to say nothing, in Allen’s case, of the political and psychic upheaval he must have experienced every four to eight years, serving under eight different administrations. How did he deal with it? Well, like many people with a job to do and a family to take care of – with a sense of pride and duty.
To me, Allen, in the spirit of a long line of African-American heroes, represents both Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin: at once invisible and steadfast in asserting his human dignity and equal rights as an American. It’s very easy to bring our contemporary analysis of race politics to a story like Allen’s, but when people ask how Allen was able to quietly and consistently serve in the White House under eight presidents – some more sympathetic to the struggle of black Americans than others – I think of a whole generation of black men who, suave and dashing, discerned in any small look or gesture from a white person exactly what was being said or being left unsaid. In a class of their own, these men, with grace and dignity, successfully navigated a very complex political landscape, doing what had to be done for their communities and for their families and thriving in the face of adversity. That is something we can all be proud of.
This capacity is well illustrated by the years Allen worked under Lyndon B. Johnson. Allen continued his dedicated service even as his own son was consigned to the ravages of warfare in the jungles of Vietnam. It is a scene that for me conjures the dramatic irony of Shakespeare: Allen dutifully serving the most powerful hand in the world, while his son endured the physical and emotional violence of war – a fate sanctioned by that very same hand.
Uncovering Allen’s tale
What brought me to Allen? I’m not entirely sure that whatever was at work can be put into words, but I outline in the book The Butler one encounter, on the eve of Obama’s election, that stands out. There were several young white women weeping because their fathers refused to speak to them for voting for the then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. In their defiance, like an augur, I saw the outcome of the election. I knew then, intuitively, that Obama would indeed be America’s first black president, and that I had to find the person (because I knew he existed somewhere) who’d witnessed the tides of history, their turning, culminating in this momentous election. Someone who was working in the White House when it was inconceivable that someone like Barack Obama could be president.
While this premonition marked the beginning of my research, I actually suspect the journey to Allen’s doorstep began earlier, maybe stretching as far back as my childhood, watching episodes of the serial western The Big Valley and wondering how Napoleon Whiting’s character, Silas – the Barkley family’s dutiful butler – found himself in that great house. Even then, I always wondered – in the midst of the Barkley family’s many turns of fortune – what was hisstory? What mask did he have to put on every day? Did the people that he served admire him? Did they love him?
When I learned he’d in fact been a butler at the White House for eight administrations, only then did I grasp the full gravity of his story and this true American fable really began to take shape. In that fable, a humble and hardworking man pulls himself up by the bootstraps from the degradation of the Jim Crow South to the cool halls of the White House, asserting his rights as an American not by marching through streets but by striding those halls with quiet dignity.
There he worked tirelessly through tumultuous periods of history, throughout the ’60s. For instance, you had the murder of Medgar Evers, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. During this dark period, many didn’t see the virtue of service and left the White House. However, Allen, like Odysseus, journeyed on, and despite these low moments, maintained hope that change was on the horizon.
I think of him, in the midst of all of this violence and upheaval, stomach gripped with fear and doubt, hearing President Johnson assure the nation that we shall overcome, standing there, just a few feet away as he said these words. It must have been a spiritual experience.
Allen found his dedication and perseverance rewarded when Ronald Reagan made him the first, and perhaps the only, White House service staff member to be formally invited to a state dinner as an official guest, slipping our hero through the silk curtain and into the receiving line with the international dignitaries and political leaders that he’d so dutifully served. It’s people like Allen, quietly endeavoring behind the scenes, that we must credit for literally forging our seat at the table. When I sat next to Allen for Obama’s inauguration, he leaned over and said to me in a poignant moment that, “early on when I’d first started in the White House, I didn’t dream you could dream like this.”
My Washington Post article, A Butler Well Served by This Election, brought Allen’s story to the world shortly after Obama was first inaugurated. But, it is Lee Daniels who’s led the effort to bring this American myth to the silver screen in the film The Butler (scheduled for release August 16, 2013), harnessing the colossal talent of Forest Whitaker, Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey and Vanessa Redgrave, just to name a few of the luminaries who make up this star-studded cast.
When I was on set in New Orleans, I would look around and see all of these amazing actors and actresses. I said to myself that this experience, just as unique and meaningful as the story we were trying to tell, needed be captured for people. Even with my level of experience, there were many publishers who said no to the idea for a book. Just when I thought it wasn’t going to happen I got a call from Sean Davis at Simon and Schuster who said they were interested, and in the spirit of so many coincidences that led me to Allen’s story, I told Sean that I had been waiting for that call.
In the book [that was released] on July 30 2013, accompanying my in-depth discussion of Allen and his life are beautiful photos of Allen, his family and moments captured on the movie set. You really get a sense of what a special man Allen was and what an amazing experience being a part of the film was.
When I think of him now, and all of the people his story will reach with the film and the book, I can’t help but wonder, like any enduring fable, what lessons we can take from a story like Allen’s. What I’m left with is simply a name, printed there in The New York Times, when The New York Times still printed the list of dignitaries invited to the state dinner. Amongst those names of diplomats, celebrities, politicians, and other very powerful people, is Eugene Allen. His is a story to me that stands as a testament to the power of consistency, and I have never been more proud of knowing another human being.