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Guest of Honor

Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation
By Deborah Davis

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Guest of Honor includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    Introduction

    At the turn of the twentieth century, racial tensions flared as African Americans struggled to adjust to a society that still carried many prejudices. African American statesmen and artists like Booker T. Washington, WEB DuBois, and Scott Joplin, were the first of many to fight for equality, each in his own way. Following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, the smart, brash, and impetuous young vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, found himself in the position of Commander-in-Chief. Roosevelt started an active correspondence with Booker T. Washington, who quickly became a valued advisor and confidant. In the same year, President Roosevelt invited Washington to have dinner with the First Family. The next morning, news that the President had dined at the White House with a black man—and former slave—sent shockwaves through the nation.

    Linking the past and the present, Guest of Honor chronicles how one seemingly ordinary dinner became a defining moment for post-Civil War politics and provides insight into the lives of two dynamic men whose experiences and philosophies forever changed the American landscape.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. In her opening remarks, author Deborah Davis confesses that she was initially skeptical to take on the project of writing about this historic dinner. Why was she hesitant to write Guest of Honor? What changed her mind? Do you think Davis’s conclusion that the subject of the dinner is more “academic than entertaining” is valid? (MM p.4) What does Davis describe as her “biggest revelation on the project?” (MM p. 6)

    2. Why did you choose to read Guest of Honor with your book club? How much did you already know about Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt before you started reading? How did your opinions of both historical figures change after completing this book?

    3. Booker T. Washington and his family faced an enormous amount of hardship and resentment, even after they were freed from slavery. How did Washington persevere during this tough adjustment period? Do you agree with the parallel that Davis draws between the struggles of the young Teddy Roosevelt and the young Booker T. Washington? Why or why not?
    4. In many ways, Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington were polar opposites of their respective contemporaries. Discuss examples of how they stood out amongst their peers and how this contributed to their individual achievements.

    5. Washington and Roosevelt both lost their first wives when they were young men. How did they respond? Discuss Davis’s claim that home to these two men became “a bleak and forbidding place, redolent of disappointment and loss”? (MM p. 48) How do you think these two early tragedies shaped each man as individuals? As political leaders?

    6. Discuss examples of how Washington and Roosevelt embodied Davis’s notion of “practicality [being] more important than protocol.” (MM p. 66)

    7. In contrast to Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive, impetuous and often brash style, Booker T. Washington was, as Davis puts it, a “secret activist.” Whose methods were more effective for their cause? Could Washington have benefitted from the President’s assertiveness? Could Roosevelt have been more cautious and subtle? Discuss your answers.
    8. Davis shifts the focus from the storyline leading up to the dinner in order to highlight the accomplishments of African Americans during the time period. Did a certain accomplishment or individual stand out to you? Did you learn something new about African American or United States history? How did these historical details enhance the narrative of Roosevelt and Washington’s controversial dinner?

    9. What were your reactions to Roosevelt and Washington’s struggles with their families, specifically their daughters? How did the two men’s personal lives suffer as a result of their political ambitions? Do you think their personal lives were worth the sacrifice of what they eventually accomplished? Why or why not?

    10. Even though Guest of Honor revolves around Roosevelt and Washington’s famous dinner at the White House, the dinner itself plays a considerably minor role in the overall book. Why do you think the author selected the title, Guest of Honor? Do you think being a “guest of honor” refers solely to Washington’s presence at the White House? How does viewing a larger cultural movement through the lens of a specific event provide new avenues for interpretation?

    11. Do you agree with Davis’s assessment that the dinner itself was a “Pandora’s box of racism that, once opened, was impossible to close”? (MM p. 200) Do you think this “box” would have been opened sooner or later, regardless of the dinner?

    12. How did the response of the Southern media and the Northern media differ? What does Davis cite as the reason for this difference? How did the distinct personality of both President Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington help them sustain the media frenzy and political storm that followed? Does Davis’s description of the media coverage remind you of how news outlets operate today? How much has changed, or remained the same, in regards to journalistic biases?

    13. Davis concludes that “where the dinner occurred was as important as the meal itself.” (MM p.224) Do you agree? Do you think the dinner would have garnered such a dramatic response if it were not at the White House?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Author Deborah Davis provides readers with a menu from a typical Wednesday night dinner at the White House. Prepare one of the items on the menu to serve at your next book club meeting!

    2. Guest of Honor is not just about Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt; it highlights the achievements of many prominent activists, educators, artists, and statesmen. Select one additional character from Guest of Honor to research. Share some information about what you learned at your book club discussion.

    3. Theodore Roosevelt almost didn’t invite Booker T. Washington to the White House, but decided to do so before he had time to change his mind. Reflect on a moment in your life where you almost didn’t do something, but decided to follow your instincts and to go through with it—for good or bad! Have each member share his or her personal story at your book club’s meeting.

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