On ‘The Butler,’ and the legendary life of Eugene Allen

ESSAY - 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...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Veteran journalist Wil Haygood originally broke the story of Eugene Allen, the butler on whom the coming film directed by Lee Daniels is based. The Butler movie chronicles this member of the White House service corps who served in eight administrations. Chase Quinn, culture writer for theGrio, spoke with Haygood about his new book on Allen’s life The Butler: A Witness to History, which also serves as a record of the film’s production. As told to Chase Quinn.

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 his story? What mask did he have to put on every day? Did the people that he served admire him? Did they love him?