Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Historic Meeting: Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship by Nikki Giovanni

Barack Obama may be the first African-American president when he moves into the White House, but abolitionist Frederick Douglass was probably the first African-American guest invited by a president to the inauguration gala there.

Indeed, as the elegantly dressed guests filled the White House ballroom on the inauguration evening of March 4, 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln noticed that her husband kept looking around for someone.

"Is something wrong?" she queried.

"I'm looking for my friend Frederick Douglass. I had invited him to come and bring his wife," Lincoln responded. "Oh, there you are, Fred," he said a bit later. "I thought I saw you a while ago."

"Yes, sir, you did," said Douglass, "but there was a misunderstanding about the door through which I was to enter. The gentleman invited my wife and me to go around to the rear door, and we declined. No matter. It has been cleared up."

Despite the displeasure of some of the guests, it was an historic moment when the two old friends shared the inaugural celebration that night in the White House Indeed, a degree of shared history already lay behind the two unlikely allies. Both were virtually self-educated, and both overcame much to become the leaders who shared that historic meeting and symbolic moment.

Giovanni tells how Lincoln and Douglass first met when Lincoln became a congressman from Illinois. Douglass sought him out as a possible supporter in the cause of Negro emancipation. The two also shared, as the author points out, a love of good food and the need to laugh together despite the deep discord of the time in which their friendship developed. Over the years Douglass pushed his friend toward his eventual belief that the nation could not prosper or continue while the institution of slavery persisted. What the two set in motion has been a long time coming, but then, as we know from another eloquent president, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Award-winning poet and author Nikki Giovanni's Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship (Henry Holt, 2009) is just in time to join the celebration of Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial birthday. Joined by artist Bryan Collier, the co-creator of their Caldecott Honor book and Coretta Scott King award-winning Rosa,honoring Rosa Parks, Giovanni's picture story of an significant American friendship is a welcome addition to books for young readers about our sixteenth president--and about his unlikely but remarkable friend.

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