I haven’t seen Lee Daniel's The Butler, but have heard good things about it. The commercials remind me of when I met a butler. It was about 3 years after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Civil rights was still a hot topic. I worked in a camera store on 43d Street in Manhattan. An African-American man and woman came to the counter. The man asked for Polaroid film. As I wrote up the sale, he explained that he was the butler for William Randolph Hearst. The Hearst’s were returning to New York and the camera had to have film in case Mr. Hearst wanted to take a picture. He loaded the camera at the counter to be sure there were no mistakes.
As a young man nearly in step with his times, I felt mildly offended that a black man should be a servant to a rich white family. As he left the store I began to think of all sorts of verbal challenges and questions—which I would keep to myself, of course, because it wasn’t my place to embarrass customers.
That evening, I realized how much dignity this man had. So much that I am still impressed by that brief encounter more than 40 years ago. I thought of the amount of detail that went into his job. Anticipating needs even down to loading a camera with film on the odd chance Mr. Hearst might want to take a picture. This butler was very good at what he did: diligent and dedicated to excellence.
There is a difference between providing service and being subservient. That’s a lesson many still need to learn. The job doesn't make the worker honorable, it's the other way around.
How many of us—regardless of race or sex—could claim to be as good at anything as this man appeared to be at his job? Since I’ve never met anyone else who could match his poise and self-assurance, I’m looking forward to seeing Forest Whitaker as the White House butler.