By Loretta Wrobel
Learning from each other is a dynamic method of discovering how each of us is shaped by our experiences. By developing interracial connections, we can all expand our mindset by knowing individuals from different races and backgrounds. Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, two talented authors, explored the powerful friendship between Mary Mcleod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt in their spectacular book, The First Ladies.
The writers focus on the intense and deep relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, and Mary Mcleod Bethune, known as the First Lady of the Struggle. These two pioneers, in pushing us towards racial equality, gained insight and profound respect for the different lives they lived, as they carved out a unique and transformative partnership/friendship with each other. They accomplished this challenging feat during a time of prohibitive Jim Crow laws that addressed interracial relationships. In the 1930s and 1940s it was forbidden for white and Black people to share a meal, attend a concert together (concert halls were segregated), or become close friends. These two activists became fast friends, disregarding the societal restrictions that our racist world demanded, and launched a multitude of significant events that moved the needle on civil rights. Eleanor was able to take advantage of her proximity to the President and his trust in her expertise and wisdom on political matters. She helped Mary secure a federal appointment, furthering the cause of equal rights, by giving people of color an access to and a forum to bring racism to the forefront.
Eleanor Roosevelt at her core was for equal rights. However, her experience growing up white in a privileged family and having her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, in the White House, gave her a vastly different perspective. Mary, who grew up struggling in a segregated world, knew the pain and suffering of living as an oppressed minority. This struggle did not stop her, as she became president of a college in Daytona, Florida! This happened in the early 1900s, which was no small feat for a Black female in America. In 1904 she opened Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls that later became Bethune Cookman University. What a role model she provided for young Black women growing up in the beginning of the twentieth century!
This book details the beginnings and successes of this most influential partnership between two feminist pioneers. Ms. Bethune was older and more seasoned, when she met Ms. Roosevelt, who was naïve and totally unaware of how individuals are traumatized by racism. The First Ladies chronicles the education of Eleanor that transformed a clueless woman into a staunch advocate for civil rights, based on what she heard from her dear friend and patient yet truthful teacher Mary. Coming from such opposite life situations as Mary and Eleanor, their views and opinions could have created stressful and hurtful encounters. However, these special and insightful activists together surmounted the potential for disagreements, by listening to and respecting each other and allowing their passion to work for equal treatment. In this manner they moved through any momentary anger or negativity. These two brave warriors faced those challenging conversations, speaking their truths, even when each knew it could result in anger, hurt feelings, and confusion.
The story of their seemingly improbable relationship survived the potential misunderstandings, and resulted in both women being able to use their different skills, diverse connections, and access to power by clever and innovative means. Eleanor constantly approached her husband, encouraging him to speak up and out about racial matters. Mary used her power as the revered leader of oppressed people. I fell in love with both Amazonian women from the first words to the final words. I felt it enhanced my passion because I listened to the audio version of the book. The authors did a mighty fine job of demonstrating the change in both women as they listened, acquired knowledge, and laughed throughout their long-term relationship. They supported each other, as they suffered through disappointments, particularly around personal issues. They schemed and connived to expose the horrors of a racist society, and together they devised solutions. They refused to be denied, and continued to fight for greater minority representation in Roosevelt’s cabinet. They stood up courageously for dismantling the hierarchy of patriarchy.
The beauty and grace of this loving interracial partnership was pure delight. I was rooting for them, and celebrating their joy and relief, when the administration acknowledged that our country would function better if all peoples were treated equally. This book about two women and their work to move our Country past the traumas and pain of segregation was, in fact, co-authored by a white woman and a Black woman. While Victoria and Marie were writing the book, they were engaged in the ongoing hard and difficult decisions regarding their own interracial relationship. The book is a primer for the importance of having interracial friendships and partnerships to truly understand the disastrous effect of oppression and discrimination on all of us. When you hear from a minority person about how racism impacts their everyday experiences, it is no longer undercover. When the white friend trusts and listens to how privileged their existence has been, she gains a profound understanding of how racism damages everyone. Racism also wastes the talents and skills and expertise of the oppressed people.
I recommend taking a smart hint from these two authors and reaching out to a person of color to develop a clearer understanding of what it is like to be Black in America. This book is as relevant now in 2023 as when our two heroines walked around the White House in the middle of the last century. I have great respect for Eleanor and Mary for taking the risk and becoming allies, which enabled them to work together on creating a more just and civil world. And kudos to Marie and Victoria for fearlessly using their interracial relationship in writing this book. By embracing this model of interracial sharing, we can work together to finally end the evils of racism.
And did I mention that this book moved me—shedding tears, feeling rage, and laughing uproariously at the fun that Eleanor and Mary had, especially sharing their love of desserts!!!