Book provided by NetGalley for a fair and honest review
You can watch my reading vlog and review on my YouTube Channel.
I approached Jill Watt’s book with a little trepidation. I was intrigued by the concept and the topic because it’s not something I’ve ever heard of. History is not my profession, and I know there’s always more for me to learn. As the publication data approached I grew wary of reading it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in learning about what was in it; I was just worried about my ability to comprehend what I read. Some of these more academic books can be really difficult to get into and read through. It doesn’t help that I’m a better reader when listening to audiobooks. Lucky for me, May was a tough month, and I was late to reading this. By the time I got to it the book was published. The audiobook was out. So I chose to listen to it. And I’m glad I did because I ended loving the audiobook. What’s more, I also think this would probably make a fantastic book to read physically as well.
The black cabinet first informally started in the age of Theodore Roosevelt, not long after the reconstruction when we begin to see a few black figures begin to get a voice in the federal government. Unfortunately this is also the time of the reconstruction when the federal government was supposed to be keeping the South from implementing things like Jim Crow, basically forcing them to follow the law rather than be resistant as they were prone to do.
Unfortunately, black Americans proved to be more trouble than it was worth, so the Republican party decided to let it go. Any issues to do with black Americans was put to the sideline. Voices were ignored and after Theodore Roosevelt left the office the few people in the black cabinet were removed from the federal government and lost any sway they might have had. A few presidencies passed and we begin to see a few voices pushing back on this idea that the Republican party as the party of African Americans.
African-Americans may have played a part in the election of Woodrow Wilson, but that democratic win was also in part due to a third party candidate. Around the time of FDR we begin to see black Americans really pushing for his election. We see people thinking that this might be the candidate who can represent them and can make things happen.
When he finally is elected, we begin to see a few African Americans again in positions of power. They weren’t a cohesive group of people, nor was it anything formal orchestrated by FDR. These were just a few individuals placed throughout the federal government or in organizations tied to the government. In fact fractions begin to form as certain African Americans push back against each other in the fight for civil rights and equality.
Income Mary Bethune and things change. Where there was a fraction there was now a group of people held together by this amazing woman who was capable of inspiring and leading them into standing together. Across FDR’s several administrations, they would go on to decrease black unemployment and increase funding in black American education. They fought for in the military, but this battle was not completed before FDR’s death in his fourth term.
While by the end of the book we may begin to feel a bit disenfranchised by all the ways in which they failed to get everything they had strove for, Watts still helps us recognize that despite their shortcomings they played an immeasurable part in the move towards civil rights. They set the stage for Kennedy who introduced the civil Rights act. Even before him, FDR’s successor would go on to desegregate the military, something FDR fought against out of fear or apathy. Of course, eventually Johnson would sign into law the civil rights act. Johnson had a had a relationship with Bethune before he took office, and it is impossible to measure the effect that kind of connection may have had on him. Many of the civil rights figures, who you may be more familiar with, were inspired by people like Mary Bethune.
In all of this, FDR is often remembered as being responsible for putting together this group of people to help advise him. However, that is not the case. The reason in which they could not get everything they wanted was because of FDR and his cabinet. FDR may not have played an active role in fighting them, but he stood by and let the rest of his administration do that for him. Either out of a desire to prevent it or a apathy toward African American, he would consistently fail to act. Any of the few actions that may have happened under his presidency were done very much against his will. To him the problems about the Americans were too much of a risk.
In his death he may have been memorialized as this civil rights figure, but it is important to recognize that the progress of his time was not due to him. It was due to this group of people who fought him every step of the way. While his untimely death (well he did get elected four times) may have caused a slight rewriting of history, it’s important to remember that this was because of a group of African Americans who put themselves at risk to fight for equality and they deserve to be remembered. What’s more, I think this book is very relevant today when we think about the existing inequalities whose existence is similarly denied or marked as unavoidable. What’s more, it speaks to the need for representation. When people say why do we need a women of color VP, this is why. They aren’t just overlooked when qualified, their viewpoints are necessary to truly overcome our inequalities.
Now the book itself was fantastic. There were times where I got a bit lost. A part of that is just because it is very detailed, and there are a lot of names we need to remember. Mary Bethune is just a leader here, and there are four or five other important figures who you might want to take note of. I mentioned them in my video review and vlog. Watts begins the book with an introduction where she talks about this basic setup of Bethune guiding the black cabinet and her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and how FDR really played no part in the black cabinet. However, I would have liked if she had mentioned the other key figures there too just so that I would have known to keep an eye out for those figures. When we’re talking about so many different individuals in history, it’s easy for these more significant individuals to get lost in the details. Once I identified them I did a better job keeping up, but that was really my only complaint in this book.
However, even with that one complaint I never stopped being thoroughly engaged. I enjoyed reading this. I did not want to stop; I wanted to find out what happened next even if have a general idea of what was to come. I was also just very excited to learn about history and politics. I’m excited to continue learning and to find other resources about the past. I’m interested in learning more about the civil rights movement and the different people who played a role in the past and the intricacies that are often lost in the history books. For that, I applaud Watts.
I adore this book, and I’m so happy that I read it. Any hesitation I had about it being too academic or too difficult to read was wrong. I highly recommend this book if you have any interest in the history of civil rights movement or politics because it is fascinating for all of those reasons.