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.
Great comment, Tom! Sad to see a great president wrongly villainized. The portrayal of LBJ in 'Selma' was also unfair.
So it sounds like you’re offended that he got the facts correct but the quote wrong? As a journalist, I’m sure you’re all about proper quotations, but as your research proves, this did happen. The quote may not have been public, but Teddy’s actions were clear.
Chappell’s point was that Black Americans have a complicated relationship with the white house. Slaves built it, Black Americans were servants there, and yet, as T Coates has broken down in explicit detail in his articles on Redlining and Reparations, the White house has often been used as the main meeting room of white supremacy in American history. But Chappell didn’t bring up Nixon’s Law and Order Campaign, or how the New Deal mostly excluded Black Americans, he instead focused on a couple of ‘well meaning’ presidents and emphasize that race was difficult for them too. The foundation of this country is that all men are created equal, but black men are 3/5ths of that. It’s a long history of absurdity. Trump is just the latest chapter.
But you got the click, with the click bait title. Maybe Chappell misquoted T Roosevelt, but actions speak louder than words.
Let me get this right. You wrote an entire post about a comic that got one fact wrong in a satirical monologue? Further, you are accusing him of making a "potentially racially explosive allegation"?
On point one, here's the definition of satire: "Satire is a genre..in which vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming indivduals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. A feature of satire is strong irony or sacrcasm- but parody, exaggeration, comparison and double entendre are all frequently used". He wasn't testifying before congress. Or teaching a history class.
On the second point, Dave Chapelle's monologue is the LEAST of our racial challenges in the US right now. Nothing exploded except for a few smiles as he reminded the audience of how far we've come and yet, we still have a long way to go. He also took the opportunity to make an appeal for tolerance in the form of giving the President Elect a chance. It's ironic, he offered up the very same tolerance that many groups are questioning whether or not they will receive.
I'm hopeful the sum of your tolerance isn't limited to the words in this post.
This is embarassing.
The issue in America right now is not Dave Chappelle attributing racist comments to the wrong person. Facts matter, but the point is the same, the backlash of Booker's visit kept any more Black people from being invited and we're returning to that era.
Write about the hundreds of hate crimes that are sweeping the country. What a waste.