This column brings me no pleasure to write, but guest host Dave Chappelle’s unsettling, misleading and potentially racially explosive allegation about 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend deserves examination, particularly in light of our increasingly divisive historical moment.
As much as I’ve laughed with and respect Chappelle as a rare comedic talent, America does not need to have a statesman who worked to improve race relations in this country falsely vilified. And we do not need American history distorted by pop culture any more than it already is.
Chappelle, who dropped out of the mainstream for a decade, hosted “SNL” as part of a personal comeback. It was also the first post-election episode of “SNL,” which has had a prominent role satirizing the candidates and the election process.
Most of the buzz centered around a very funny “Walking Dead” skit and the fact his opening 11-minute standup bit was censored in portions of the country.
But it wasn't any vulgarities in his opening segment that offended me. It was the way Chappelle rewrote history to serve a political agenda. And it wasn’t a joke.
We know it wasn’t a joke, because Chappelle told us himself, roughly nine minutes deep in his routine, as he was finishing up, speaking about America and the election results: “This is not a joke, but I think it’s important that I say this,” he began.
Chappelle then started talking about being invited to the White House for a BET party, where everyone was black (except Bradley Cooper. LOL?). Chappelle proceeded to take us backwards through history, to the first black man invited to the White House, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Though he first said, “I’m not sure this is true,” Chappelle claimed Douglass was not allowed on the White House grounds until President Lincoln came down personally to vouch for him.
From Douglass’s own we can discover this account isn’t true. Stopped by guards, Douglass said, “Tell Lincoln I’m here, you'll see,” and he then got past the velvet rope.
Chappelle went on to claim no other black person was invited to the White House again until Theodore Roosevelt. “And he got so much flack from the media he literally said, 'I will never have a n****r in this house again.’,” Chapelle asserted.
It was not delivered as a joke. Nobody laughed. I sure didn’t. But from what I could learn from researching the incident over the past several days, it was a lie.
Chappelle’s revisionist view of presidential and racial history clanked me upside the head when I heard it because I’ve read a lot about Teddy Roosevelt, and was familiar with the incident. The black man was Booker T. Washington, by the way, a great American author and political leader who deserved to be name dropped.
Some initial Googling came up with zero, but the recent election has shown us we can’t particularly trust Google, so I called the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, our nation’s largest “repository for all Roosevelt-related documents, photographs, and ephemera,” and spoke with Pamela Pierce, the center’s Digital Library coordinator and archivist.
Pierce confirmed my concern.
“We can’t find any record of him saying the quote that Chapelle used,” she told me. “There is nothing, as far as we are aware, that corroborates that quote.”
She then sent me a series of historical links to documents chronicling how the dinner came about, how it played out afterwards, and Roosevelt’s own writings about how hurt and upset he was by the backlash.
It was ugly, alright. The media attacked Roosevelt mercilessly, while he publicly stood up for Washington, saying “[T]he idiot or vicious Bourbon element of the South is crazy because I have had Booker T. Washington to dine. I shall have him to dine just as often as I please.“
It should also be noted that he actually did no such thing, so Roosevelt sort of chickened out, and it’s fair enough to call him on it. But there is no public record that he said what Chappelle alleged. He played politics: Talked tough, didn’t actually do anything that might cause him more problems. Ironically, he behaved opposite one of his most famous claims, to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
One thing I did discover was a very popular poem that was syndicated throughout American newspapers -- over the course of two years -- called “N****s in the White House,” which attacked Roosevelt for dining with Washington.
It’s a horrifying read that ends with Roosevelt’s decapitation. It ran in hundreds of newspapers. I bring it up only to point out that, yeah, things look pretty ugly now, but they’ve been worse.But misrepresenting the character of an American president who at least tried to do some good for race relations is also unfair and counter-productive. It grates especially when it comes from someone who’s earned significant creative credibility like Chappelle. Talking honestly about race is hard enough; talking about it through propaganda and lies will make it impossible.