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    WELCOME TO THE BLACK RUSSIAN BLOG--DEDICATED TO TOPICS CONNECTED WITH, AND CIRCLING AROUND, MY BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK BRUCE THOMAS, THE SON OF MISSISSIPPI SLAVES WHO BECAME A MILLIONAIRE IMPRESARIO IN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY MOSCOW AND 'THE SULTAN OF JAZZ' IN CONSTANTINOPLE To subscribe to this blog's RSS feed, please click on the icon above

    Entries in Frederick Thomas (109)

    Frederick Thomas and Moscow’s First Roof-Top Entertainment Garden

    After the Great War began, Frederick was making so much money that he started looking for new ways to invest it and to grow his business.  Early in 1916 rumors began to spread in Moscow that one of the city’s “biggest entrepreneurs” was organizing a company to rent the roof of the city’s tallest building and to create a summer garden on it that would feature a big restaurant “in the English fashion,” a symphony orchestra, and a variety theater.  Visitors would also be provided with binoculars and telescopes so that they could view the entire city.  Although the location was not named in the press, it was almost certainly the celebrated Nirnsee Building on 43 Oruzheyny Lane, which was built in 1913, was eight stories tall, and was described during construction as “Moscow’s first skyscraper” (most of the city’s buildings were only two or three stories high in those days). 

     

    The Nirnsee Building, Moscow

     

    The entrepreneur could very well have been Frederick.  The plan’s emphasis on innovation points to him, as does the restaurant’s foreign flavor.  He had introduced the English concept of a “Music Hall” to Moscow when he was renovating Aquarium’s summer program in 1913, instituted the French-named “Salon Tango” in Maxim in 1914, and in 1916 was the first to show films to patrons in Aquarium’s garden of how they had arrived there earlier that same evening. 

    A foreign model may also be behind the unusual idea of exploiting a tall building as an entertainment venue:  this recalls the fixation on “skyscrapers” that was a distinctly American urban feature in the early twentieth century (at this time Manhattan’s tallest building was over fifty stories).  Before he left the United States twenty years earlier, Frederick had already seen more tall American buildings in New York and Chicago than any other theatrical entrepreneur in Moscow; and American skyscrapers, which kept growing taller every year, remained a news item in the decades that followed. 

    It is regrettable that nothing came of this fanciful and modern-sounding idea of a roof garden in Moscow’s center, although a café and a summer movie theater were eventually established there.  Perhaps technical problems interfered:  any building would have to be reengineered so that it could support a heavy new load; and this would be complicated by the strains that the war had placed on all aspects of Russian industry, including civilian construction.  Issues of fire safety would be another complication. 

    But Frederick did not give up. (To be continued).

    “Mulat Tomas,” or Food & Sex in Moscow (and more pictures)

    Frederick Thomas is virtually forgotten in Russia today (except that information from my book about him has been popping up in the Russian press and on Russian websites, some of which have copied all my images).  It’s therefore especially interesting that for some six years, from 2006 to 2011 or so, there was a restaurant named after him in the center of the city.  It was located in a ground-floor space of the “Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater” at 17 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, which is where Frederick’s celebrated  theater and nightclub “Maxim” was located before the Revolution.

    I visited the place a couple of times when I was in Moscow in 2007 to do research.  I was very interested in finding out what the people who had opened it (a company named Dolce Vita Group) knew about Frederick and, of course, I wanted to see what the place looked like.  I discovered very quickly that the owners knew virtually nothing about Frederick, except that he was a black man and that he had had a property there prior to 1917.  They called him “mulat” (Russian for “mulatto”) for no better reason than to evoke exotic associations.

    Frederick’s pre-Revolutionary “Maxim” was designed to appeal to moneyed Muscovites and was decorated luxuriously in accordance with the tastes of the time—high ceilings, gilt, chandeliers, plush carpets, glass, polished wood and metal.  It was a venue for different kinds of popular entertainment, especially variety shows, which frequently included attractive female singers and dancers.  Abundant food and drink were also part of the draw.  Although very tame by today’s standards, some of the acts on Maxim’s stage, such as “can-can” dancers from the Moulin Rouge in Paris--with their kick line, flaunted pantaloons and yelps, were seen by contemporary journalists as daringly risqué.

    Mulat Tomas did not resemble the original Maxim physically at all.  But either wittingly or unwittingly, the owners had succeeded in creating a playfully eroticized décor that was a plausible translation of Maxim’s risqué reputation into modern terms, as the photographs below show.

     

     

    View of the main façade of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater on Bolshaya Dmitrovka.

     

     

    Alley to the left of the Theater’s main façade, with the entrance to the Mulat Tomas Café (as the owners called their restaurant) which served a pricy international cuisine.

     

    Close-up of the sign outside the restaurant giving its name “Café Mulat Tomas” and indicating that it was open 24 hours a day.

     

    The low, barrel-vaulted ceiling of the restaurant’s main dining area, showing its dark-toned décor, unusual fabrics and textures, and inventive furniture.

     

    This is a suggestive sculptural ensemble that gave the place its eroticized ambience.  A nearly life-sized, chocolate-colored, embracing nude couple is partially concealed by a lamp-shade-like curtain.  This was intended as a model for what clients could do with one of the special tables in the restaurant:  the cylindrical curtain above them could be dropped entirely to conceal them from the view of the other restaurant patrons.  Of course, dropping the curtain also underscored that the clients were up to something that they didn’t want others to see (or pretending that they were up to something).

     

    A table that could be enclosed by dropping a curtain that would conceal it, and those sitting at it, from view.

     

    A better-lit corner with a period poster (unrelated to Frederick).

    Frederick Thomas’s Moscow in Images

     

     

     Moscow city view, ca. 1900, as Frederick Thomas would have seen it when he arrived.  The Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square are at the top center.

     

    Tverskaya Street, ca. 1900, one of the main thoroughfares and shopping streets in Moscow, facing north, toward Triumphal Square, near which Frederick Thomas lived and worked for many years.

     

    Triumphal Square and Arch, ca. 1900, near which Frederick Thomas lived and worked for many years in Moscow.

     

     

    Pillared entrance to Aquarium Garden, in which Frederick worked and which he later owned, near Triumphal Square, c. 1900

     

    Contemporary entrance to Aquarium Park and Mossovet Theater, 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street, Moscow.

     

    Promenading crowd in the Aquarium garden, c. 1890s (before Frederick worked there).

     

    Frederick Thomas’s Petition for Russian Citizenship, or the Seductions of Invention

    As I describe in my book, Frederick Thomas decided to apply for Russian citizenship in 1914, shortly after the Great War began.  This was a remarkable event, and he may have been the first black American ever to do this.  There is much to say about the significance and consequences to his action, but here I’d like to focus on one of his several inventions that were recorded on the official form that had to be filled out on his behalf. 

    Among the biographical data that the form collected is whether or not the petitioner for citizenship had fulfilled his military obligations while in his native land.  Imperial Russia had an elaborate system of conscription and took the matter of military service very seriously, especially now when the country was at war.  Perhaps for these reasons Frederick decided to answer that he had served “in the Navy of the United States for a year and a half in 1889-1890.”  This is intriguing but completely implausible.  So why would he have said this?  My inference is that although he was forty-two in 1914 and thus too old to be drafted into the Tsar’s military, his claim of naval service abroad at least made him seem more in step with his adopted country’s rapidly escalating mobilization.  The remark does constitute a faint echo of the Thomass family’s oral tradition about “Tomac” having been in the merchant marine and a smuggler in the China Sea (please see my earlier posts about this).  However, when Frederick was trying to save himself by telling his real life story to an American consular official in Constantinople in 1924, he did not mention service in the American Navy, which could have made all the difference in his fate if it had been true. 

    A Black American Churchman in Russia, or Acceptance in an Unexpected Place

    As I’ve mentioned before, Frederick Thomas encountered no “color line” in Moscow when he arrived in 1899, which is why he settled and thrived there.   But even though there were very few black people in Russia before the Revolution, Frederick’s case was not entirely unique. 

    One unusual black visitor who also received a warm—and in this case, surprising—welcome in Russia was a man who styled himself “Sir Robert Joseph Morgan,” and who said he was an Anglican bishop originally from Jamaica but living in Nashville, Tennessee. He traveled to St. Petersburg, the imperial capital, in 1904.  My primary source of information about him is a contemporary account in a Russian magazine (although it’s interesting to note that some American sources suggest Morgan was not entitled to his grand titles).  Be that as it may, what’s important from my perspective is not who he actually was, but how he was received in Russia. 

    Morgan explained that his purpose was to learn for himself the truth about the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian people because many fables were being spread about them in the United States.

     

    The caption reads: 

    "Negro bishop of the Anglican Church Sir Robert Joseph Morgan, who arrived in Petersburg from America to familiarize himself with Orthodoxy.

    Based on the photograph by K. Bull for 'Niva'."

    ["Niva" was a popular illustrated magazine, 1904, No. 44, p. 880]

     

    Now, it needs to be underscored that the Russian Orthodox Church at this time was a very conservative institution that often strayed into reaction and xenophobia, and one would not have expected its hierarchs to be receptive to unfamiliar-looking leaders of other confessions.  Nevertheless, Bishop Morgan was welcomed warmly by no less a personage than Metropolitan Antony, the head of the Church in the imperial capital, who offered him lodgings in his own residence in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and willingly accompanied him on a tour of the capital’s two major cathedrals—Saint Isaac’s and Kazansky.  The visitor was deeply impressed by the grandeur of both buildings and by the soaring choral music that he heard. 

    Bishop Morgan was also very pleasantly surprised that he was allowed to enter the altar sanctuaries of the cathedrals wearing his full ecclesiastical garb, something Catholics would not have permitted, as he did not fail to point out.  Metropolitan Antony also presented Bishop Morgan with a gold cross as a token of spiritual kinship.

    Wild Nights in Moscow, or More of What Frederick Saw

    Stories about excesses such as the ones I described in my previous post were the fodder of newspapers around the world and even penetrated into the distant American Midwest.  A newspaper in Iowa City marveled in 1911 how one of Moscow’s “rich young bloods” took over a fashionable cafe chantant where a group of ballerinas were performing, had the entire floor covered with buckets of black sturgeon caviar, and then hired the young women to roll around on the floor from one side of the room to the other until they and their pretty costumes were covered with the black paste from head to toe. 

    In the end, Yar Restaurant and other fashionable places like it were ruled by money, and there was little at Yar, or anywhere else in pre-Revolutionary Moscow for that matter, that money could not buy (Chicago, Berlin, and Shanghai were hardly different, of course).  A constant refrain in reminiscences about restaurants that had private dining rooms was that these were also used for more or less discreet assignations (although it is worth noting that police regulations officially forbad locks on the doors of private rooms, which somewhat limited their utility for illicit pastimes, or raised their cost because of bribes).  The combination of men with money and attractive young women who performed for money made transactions inevitable; and it was not just the Aquarium’s policy to require female performers to continue to entertain guests off stage (as I described in a previous post).  Given all this, and by virtue of being skilled and diplomatic administrators, maîtres d’hôtel at times assumed the role of mediators between the women and the men; some inevitably became procurers.  In the case of Yar, I have not seen any evidence that Sudakov, the restaurant’s owner, or his closest associates, had anything personally to do with the exchange of sex for money (and in Frederick’s case, evidence from a later time clearly suggests the opposite).  In fact, Sudakov once quizzed a famous singer about the dress in which she was going to perform because he feared it might be too low cut.  He explained that his patrons included staid Moscow merchants who brought their wives, and “God forbid there should be any indecency.”  However, the atmosphere of innuendo that surrounded all such places suggests that there was also fire where there was so much smoke.

    Yar’s most notorious patron with a well-deserved reputation for debauchery was Gregory Rasputin, imperial Russia’s extraordinary evil genius.  A semi-literate, cunning, and libidinous peasant, he combined avarice with primitive mysticism, and a well-developed intuition about people’s baser motivations with a beguiling manner that attracted sycophants and hypnotized the gullible, including, most notably, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra.  Some of his extravagant carousals took place in Yar.  On one occasion, he arrived with an entourage and took a private room.  He called in chorus girls and made them made perform “cynical dances,” as the police report subsequently put it, performed Russian folk dances himself, and dragged some of the women onto his lap.  Sudakov fell into a panic when he heard what was going on and tried to persuade other patrons that it was not actually Rasputin carousing upstairs but an imposter passing himself off as the notorious “friend” of the imperial family.  When Rasputin got wind of this he was so incensed that he began to prove his authenticity in the most outrageous ways, including hinting crudely about his relations with the Empress, bragging that she had personally made the caftan he was wearing, and, finally, dropping his trousers and exposing himself to the young women.  There are some more details about him in my book, and he remains a figure of perennial fascination for biographers.

    Wild Nights in Moscow, or Some of What Frederick Saw

    A big step up for Frederick Thomas in Moscow was when, around 1909, he became senior assistant to Aleksey Sudakov, the owner of Yar Restaurant on the city’s northern outskirts.  This was one of the most famous restaurants in the Russian Empire, and many of its patrons believed that it was one of the best in all of Europe.  Celebrated for its cuisine, entertainment, and luxurious atmosphere, it was the place of choice for grand dukes from St. Petersburg, Moscow’s millionaires, and foreign dignitaries.  It was also the place where the notorious religious mountebank Gregory Rasputin—imperial Russia’s incredible evil genius—would come to carouse when he was in the city.  Here are photographs of Yar's exterior, interior, and garden:


     

     


    As someone who was in charge not only of waiters but also of other maîtres d’hôtel, Frederick’s skills and tact were often challenged and pushed to the limit at Yar.  There were two reasons for this.  One was Moscow’s cultural norms, especially among some members of its rich merchant class, who valued the ability to demonstrate bravado or unbridled passion in a way that would make people notice and remember.  The other was the reputation Yar acquired as a favorite destination for extravagant sprees.  The result was some truly memorable escapades that became part of Moscow city lore.

    One evening a merchant sitting by himself and drinking the most expensive French champagne decided that he would like to take a bottle and toss it at one of the giant beveled mirrors lining the walls, just for the hell of it.  Even before the approaching maître d’hôtel could confront him about the cascade of glass and the screams of the other patrons, the merchant had pulled out his wallet:  “How much?” he inquired coolly. 

    On another occasion, a very rich young man, “Nikolasha” Ryabushinsky, who seemed to be trying to burn through his inheritance as quickly as possible, discovered during dinner at Yar that his companion of the moment, a French actress, had broken her fan.  Despite the fact that it was late at night, he commanded one of his hangers-on to take his red Daimler motor car, which all of Moscow knew because of the break-neck speed at which it raced around the city, to go and wake up the manager of the most fashionable shop on the most fashionable shopping street, Karetny Ryad, and to bring him back to Yar together with a whole box of fans made in Paris.  The French actress was thus able to choose a replacement, while members of the gypsy and Russian choirs that “Nikolasha” had hired for the night got the rest. 

    An American writer who visited Yar around 1911 reported that Frederick told him that there are “probably an average of fifty bills a month, paid for one evening’s entertainment, that will average seven thousand five hundred rubles each” (which translates into six figures in today’s dollars).

    Would anyone in Coahoma County, Mississippi, have believed that Frederick had become a member of a world such as this?

    The Tango, or Sex, Death, and the Black Russian (continued)

    The tango became so popular in Russia on the eve of the Great War that professional dancers who specialized in the dance were imported from abroad and became fixtures on the city’s stages. 

    To expand the possibilities for indulging the new craze, and to extend the hours when his theater and nightspot Maxim could be open to the public, Frederick Thomas introduced “tango teas” at 5 P. M.  The first one early in 1914 was a great success—couples filled the dance floor and vied with each other and with the professionals that Frederick had hired and mixed into the crowd.  In fact, the demand for instruction skyrocketed and stage performers from Maxim and other variety theaters began to charge the daughters of Moscow’s plutocrats as much as 25 rubles a lesson, or several hundred of today’s dollars.  To attract even more female patrons Frederick introduced special sessions of “Ladies’ Tango.” 

    Dressmakers in Russia and abroad also cashed in on the craze with designs for evening gowns that facilitated movement or could be transformed into the “most Tango-ish by a flip of the hand,” which also allowed ladies to enjoy the piquant thrill of showing a bit of silk-clad leg and frilly pantaloon:

     

     

     “The gown transformed for the dance—tucked under the arm and now adapted to any step.” (“A New Dance Gown,” The Washington Post, January 3, 1915, p. M5.)

     

    The tango’s popularity continued during the war on stage and off, with professional dancers and singers adding macabre overtones at times.  One couple became famous for their “Tango of Death” (see an image and description on my website under "Images").   A similar dance act in Paris a few years earlier by Frederick’s old acquaintance, Natalya Trukhanova, was called “The Vampire” (see my earlier blog posts about her). 

    Passion and violence had been associated with the tango from its origins in Latin America, but the staged version at places like Maxim was an easy way to make the sleek and well-fed audiences feel titillated without having to risk anything themselves.  A popular song version on the same theme in 1916 (later made into a movie) was “The Last Tango” by the emerging star Isa Kremer, in which a jilted lover stabs the woman to death.  Kremer knew Frederick and would perform for him in Constantinople (see my earlier blog post about her).

     

    Cover for the sheet music for “The Last Tango” linking passion and death, which Isa Kremer adapted from the French and made popular in Russia in 1916.

    The Tango, or Sex, Death, and the Black Russian 

    On the eve of the Great War, a new dance craze emerged from Argentina, leapt to Paris, and swept around the world—the tango.  Its popularity in Moscow was so immediate and so great that Frederick, who was always very alert to novelty, decided to capitalize on it by refurbishing large spaces in his Aquarium (see image here) and Maxim and naming them after the dance. 

    The tango’s origins lay in the rough neighborhoods and brothels of Buenos Aires, and although its moves had been sanitized by the time it caught on with the upper classes in the world’s great cities, it never lost its seductive aura or allure.  It is an emotional dance in which the man often embraces the woman closely and her body clings to his; their steps to the pulsing music can be slow or quick, depending on what the man feels and communicates to his partner as he leads her; when he pauses, she can improvise as her mood suggests. It is a dance of passion and surrender.

    This possibility of engaging in a public display of elegant, stylized eroticism is what enthralled dancers from New York to Shanghai.  But this understated sexuality was also what alarmed moral watchdogs and prudes around the world who were shocked that couples on brightly-lit dance floors would express feelings that belonged in a darkened bedroom.  Just before the war began, French bishops condemned the dance; the German Kaiser Wilhelm II forbad it at his court; and the English King George V expressed his disapproval.  The Imperial Ministry of Education prohibited any mention of the tango in Russian schools.  In the town of Yalta in the south of Russia a tango dancer was accused of indecent behavior in 1914 and further performances were stopped; the same happened in distant Milwaukee.  The great ballerina Anna Pavlova said that the tango was an erotic dance and would repulse anyone with a genuine sense of beauty.  The commander of an elite guards’ regiment in Petrograd stopped short of forbidding the dance, but suggested that it would be unseemly for his officers to perform it; his counterparts in the Austro-Hungarian army felt the same and announced that “officers in uniform are not allowed to dance the tango.”  (The tango was thus reliving the common fate of most new dances:  even the waltz had been roundly attacked for indecency when it first appeared in Europe around the turnof the nineteenth century.)

    The countless aficionados of the tango were hardly deterred of course; if anything, accusations that the dance was immoral added to its appeal.  By Christmas of 1913, or soon after the tango first reached Russia, a journalist proclaimed that Frederick’s Maxim theater had become Moscow’s “kingdom of the tango”; it has “gone to everyone’s heads,” he continued, and expressed amazement at the variety of styles that had sprung up—Brazilian, Mexican, Spanish, even German and Russian (but oddly enough, not Argentinean).  This connection became fixed in the public’s imagination so rapidly that a popular film from 1914 referred to Maxim as the place to tango in the city. (To be continued)

    “The Butler” and the “Black Russian,” or Success via the School of Hard Knocks

    I found Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” to be a powerful, moving, and well-crafted film, with wonderful performances by Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and many others in the exceptional ensemble.  It’s also a necessary film at the present historical moment, when the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement are under widespread assault.

    Despite the obvious differences between the lives and times of “the butler”—Cecil Gaines, and the “black Russian”—Frederick Thomas, I was struck by some similarities they shared.  Most important, it seems to me, is how each man became a highly successful member of the “service profession” in response to the cruel pressures of Jim Crow, which of course also severely restricted what a black man could do for a living.

    Cecil and Frederick both started out working for white people in the South and then later in the North.  As a result, each began his career by having to face the inevitable, a priori skepticism of Southern whites who didn’t expect a black youth to behave properly or to be able to carry out his duties well.  In Cecil’s case we see this in the way he’s scrutinized and admonished by the elderly white woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who decides to train him as a house servant (she is, in her own way, trying to be kind to him immediately after his mother is raped and father is murdered).  Later, Cecil faces a related attitude in the North, in the scene with the captious White House Chief of Staff who closely watches him working in a bar in Washington, which leads to Cecil’s being offered the job as White House butler.  One can readily imagine that if Cecil had slipped up even slightly in the bar (which would have been easy for him to do, considering the bigoted white man he was serving), he would have been finished.  But Cecil’s skill and intelligence (about which, more below), carry him through and he becomes a master of his profession, although the Chief of Staff’s attitude toward him remains decidedly unfriendly for decades.

    Frederick’s early training must have been similar to Cecil’s, given that his first urban job was as a delivery boy for a white, upscale food merchant in Memphis.  Frederick faced even more scrutiny and even higher hurdles when he became a waiter in a big, new hotel in Chicago, which of course catered only to white patrons.  In fact, there is evidence that Frederick never forgot what it took for him to succeed as he was starting his career in Jim Crow America.  Many years and adventures later, when he was the proprietor of a famous nightclub in Constantinople, he had a revealing encounter with a tourist, Mrs. C. C. Harper of Montgomery, Alabama.  She could hardly get over the fact that the nightclub’s owner was a black man from the South, and gushed in a letter that he was “a good polite negro . . . as hugely pleased at meeting a Southern woman from America as he could be . . . [and was] never presumptuous.”  Mrs. Harper was not only blinded by her own racist narcissism; she was also taken in by the role that Frederick had chosen to play when dealing with her.  Because he was the celebrated host of a popular establishment, it was natural for him to be charming and welcoming to every customer.  But the woman’s reaction shows that he must have spoken to her in a way that was calibrated to her specific biases—with the exaggerated courtesy that whites expected from blacks in the United States (a successful and profitable businesss was the best revenge).

    As such, this encounter also illustrates a larger issue that is central to “The Butler.”  The way Frederick addressed the woman is an example of the “veiled” way black people spoke, and sometimes still speak, to whites in comparison to the uncensored way they speak to each other.  Henry Louis Gates, Jr., praises the film especially for its accuracy in portraying this feature of black life and culture in his review article about the film, "'The Butler':  Lifting the Veil on Black Life."  In this light, it’s very interesting to note that even when he was living abroad, Frederick would at times drop his guard and speak frankly to a white American with whom he had become friends, using the kinds of “unpolished” expressions that he would not have used with a Mrs. Harper.

    In addition to the formative influence of working under the heavy gaze of quarrelsome or hostile white people, the most important training that Cecil gets in the film is from another black man, “Maynard.”  I believe that this too has a parallel in Frederick’s case.  When researching his life in Gilded Age Chicago, I came across a fascinating manual for black waiters written by a prominent black maître-d’hôtel, John B. Goines (I posted a series of entries about this earlier on my blog: here, here, and here). In the early 1890s, fully one third of Chicago’s small black population was employed in domestic and personal service, which included workers in restaurants and hotels, in private homes, and on trains as Pullman porters.  This was by far the largest niche that blacks filled.  And there is little doubt that Frederick was initially trained as a waiter by senior, experienced black men like Goines, who also occupied honored and privileged positions in their own communities.  Moreover, the training Frederick received stood him in such good stead that he was able to use it to excel as a waiter and valet in Europe, where he was at times put in charge of “native” waiters, and as a stepping stone to fame and fortune in Russia and Turkey. 

    Implied in everything I’ve mentioned is the importance for a successful black waiter to be an exceptional psychologist.  A white servant obviously also needs to be responsive to his client’s or employer’s desires.  But a black man who has to be constantly on alert against a white racist’s negative stereotypes and biases must be especially astute.  Frederick’s encounter with the Alabama matron is only one of many examples of how skillful he was at “reading” others and positioning himself to maximal advantage in relation to them.  Cecil shows his intelligence in this way as well. One example is how he diplomatically negotiates the loaded questions that the white politician asks him during the scene in the bar, when he’s being covertly watched by the White House Chief of Staff.  Another is how he overcomes the resentment of Freddie Fallows, the black maître d’hôtel at the White House, who is miffed that he wasn’t the one who initiated Cecil’s hiring.  There are many other such moments in Forest Whitaker’s masterful performance.  And what is striking about many of them is that Cecil never loses his sense of personal dignity when dealing with difficult or offensive white people.   The far-reaching importance of this kind of behavior is revealed in a scene in the film when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stresses the crucial role that a black servant’s dignity has in demonstrating to whites the value and humanity of black people in general.

    One final point.  There is unintended and painful irony in my juxtaposing Cecil and Frederick, because although both men were forged by similar circumstances, their fates turned out to be very different.  With his native intelligence and the skills that he mastered, Cecil reached honorable distinction in his profession, but he was always circumscribed by white bias.  However, Frederick, who was also highly intelligent, took the same set of skills that Cecil had and went abroad with them to countries where there was no bias against black people.  And there he was able to flourish in a way that would be unimaginable for black people in the United States for many decades to come.

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