The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty by Lawrence Otis Graham
Published June 27, 2006 by Harper
The Senator and the Socialite is the true story of Blanche K. Bruce, a Mississippian who was the first elected black senator to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. In the book, Graham chronicles the Bruce family’s rise to prominence during the 19th Century, a time when blacks were truly on the bottom rungs of society. Graham also relates the story of the family’s subsequent decline in the 20th Century.
As a black Mississippian, I’d heard of Bruce before reading this book. He was one of the famous names that Mississippi school children hear about as they’re growing up and learning about state history. But I’d never read more than paragraph about him, even in grad school. When I first noticed this book on my mother’s dresser, I couldn’t pass up the chance to read a whole book about not just Bruce but also his family.
The Senator and the Socialite starts off great. It’s historical non-fiction, but it’s certainly not a dry read. Graham is a very capable writer. As expected, I learned a ton of new stuff. For example, I had no idea that Mississippi has had a black Lt. Governor. Alexander K. Davis served as Lt. Governor under Adelbert Ames. Even more amazing is that Davis and Ames were elected in November 1873.
The more I read about Bruce and his wife, Josephine, the more I didn’t like them, which is something I hate to admit. They both seemed extremely opportunistic, and there doesn’t seem to be any justifiable reason for it. They both wanted to acquire and hold onto power, even when it meant neglecting their extended family. When I think of historical figures who accomplished great things, I tend to think of them as having pure reasons for their actions, and I find myself holding them to a kind of lofty ideal. When I read accounts like what’s in The Senator and the Socialite, it brings these people down to reality, and I realize that they were humans with flaws, like the rest of us. I guess that can be both a good and bad thing.
Unfortunately, my dislike for the Bruces isn’t limited to Blanche and Josephine. I feel the same about Roscoe, their son, though, his personality isn’t totally his own fault. His parents were often so busy with their own professional and social obligations that they didn’t spend any time with their kid. It’s heartbreaking to read about how he wanted to get to know them, how he yearned for closeness with them, but they just weren’t there for him emotionally.
In Chapter 15, we finally get an instance where Roscoe doesn’t seem like a snob. Josephine wanted him to marry someone from a wealthier family so that problems wouldn’t arise due to mismatched financial backgrounds. Her brother’s first wife was a woman from a family of more modest means than theirs, and when they split, she took everything he had – literally. The woman took all his possessions. Josephine didn’t want Roscoe to succumb to the same fate. But Roscoe didn’t budge. He wanted Clara, even though her family was middle class and not as wealthy as the Bruces.
As I began Chapter 15, I thought that Roscoe may have matured and turned over a new leaf, but my thoughts were premature. Right before his marriage to Clara, he was such an ass about the wedding and who was supposed to pay for it. He wanted a grand wedding but he wasn’t willing to help Clara’s family pay for it, even though they couldn’t afford all the things he demanded. I’ve never heard the term groomzilla, which would be the male version of a bridezilla, but I would say Roscoe definitely qualified. He wouldn’t help pay for the wedding, and he was unwilling to postpone it so that Clara’s family could save some more money for it. Also, he made Clara leave school to marry him and suggested that she was immoral for wanting to postpone so that she could finish. What a jerk!
Josephine had at least one moment of redemption, too. In Chapter 16, she decided to pay her workers, going against the advice of her asshat brother-in-law. So the Bruces weren’t totally opportunistic about everything. To be fair, the Bruces aren’t the only ones who seemed less shiny to me by the time I finished the book. Through the accounts that Graham decides to include, he also manages to make Booker T. Washington seem like a total dick.
While it was certainly interesting to read about this extraordinary family, I can’t help but feel sad about the outcome. In a way, even the modern family doesn’t leave any hope for a happy ending for the “dynasty”. Nearly all of the Bruce descendants have disappeared or have chosen to obscure their family ties to the family. Some of the descendants live as white people and refuse to acknowledge ties due to racial reasons. And many of the family members who look black don’t necessarily feel the need to embrace the family history.
Honestly, my opinion of Bruce and his family kept declining throughout the book, and they never really were able to redeem themselves to what my opinion of them had been prior to reading the book. Granted, prior to reading the book, I’d known very little about them, but I’d had a positive perception because of Blanche Bruce’s role in the history of Mississippi and the nation. The Senator and the Socialite was a great book, but the story it tells is overwhelmingly sad.