We can judge autobiography strictly for its ability to penetrate and portray the stuff of life. We can also assess its capture of a single human story, especially if the author’s life fascinates us. The best succeed at both, but also illuminate the historical moment in which the author lived. That rare autobiography becomes the most compelling kind of history and reveals an era while it absorbs us with a human voice. Lewis M. Steel’s “The Butler’s Child” is such a book.
Steel, an heir to the Warner Brothers fortune, grew up “in the cool green shade of (family) wealth” on Central Park. Two black servants, Bill and Lorraina Rutherford, became “like a second set of parents” to him. Vast inequality kenneled their love behind a high fence; Steel’s nostalgia for that love is cut with an unusual clarity and candor. “Bill and Lorraina were central figures in my childhood. But there it was. They were black and I was white, and I liked being white. It didn’t lessen my feelings for them, but I knew my color was better, and theirs marked them as lesser people.”
As the boy grew up, however, the shadows cast by race and class descended more deeply. His beloved Bill became “a friendly servant rather than a father figure,” to Steel’s enduring discomfort. “Years later,” Steel writes, “I began to understand that the complicated love that existed between me and Bill and Lorraina – all three of us wired not to engage in it entirely, or not in an open, uncomplicated way – has a lot to do with my lifelong attempts to change the pervasive racial dysfunction in our society.”
In 1963, Steel became an unlikely civil rights lawyer. Working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he fought to make real the victories of the civil rights movement. Alongside his NAACP mentor, the legendary attorney Robert Carter, Steel also sued to desegregate public schools in the intractable North, in places like Cincinnati, Springfield and South Bend where whites fiercely resisted the Brown v. Board of Education decision. He battled housing segregation. He fought for labor rights for black workers shut out of labor unions “up South,” as Malcolm X called the North. And as his hero and friend Bob Carter taught him, he sought not merely to win cases but to expand civil rights law.
Steel’s career careened through the tumult of the late 1960s and the tensions as the Vietnam War took center stage in American politics. The play became a tragedy scarred by assassinations and other violence. The dissolution of the national coalition that had won the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 complicated the legal struggle. Politics inside the NAACP grew contentious, marred by the same clashes that wracked the culture, and also stymied by the conservative turn of the nation’s courts. In 1968, Steel wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine slamming the Supreme Court, and the timorous NAACP fired him.
Market forces predicated that ‘a good neighborhood’ was a place that would remain forever closed to all but a handful of blacks.
From “The Butler’s Child”
Steel became a criminal defense lawyer, taking indigent clients and cases around systemic injustice or prison reform. He was an observer during the negotiations of the 1971 Attica prison takeover. He worked on the notorious case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who spent 19 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder. After the 1970s, Steel grew disheartened. So much of the injustice he had battled seemed to persist and even deepen. Police brutality, housing discrimination, school resegregation, mass incarceration and the erosion of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause left him disillusioned, though not bitter.
School integration remains a thorny problem that the law could not resolve for long. As long as parents demand “neighborhood schools,” integrated schools must wait on integrated housing, which rests upon “systematic divides at all levels of society,” Steel points out. “Market forces predicated that ‘a good neighborhood’ was a place that would remain forever closed to all but a handful of blacks.” For African-Americans mired in substandard housing, this means separate and unequal education in high-poverty schools.
Looking backward from these predicaments, “The Butler’s Child” traces the racial politics of the last six and a half decades. Steel’s personal voice makes that an absorbing journey. His framing the story with his relationship to an African-American family servant made me wince at times; the title sets a high bar for insights about white supremacy that the book doesn’t quite clear. Only Steel’s commendable candor and self-knowledge keep the narrative from dealing in racial clichés.
Nor does he ever resolve the tensions between his career as a radical lawyer and his posh life with homes on Central Park and in the Hamptons. Again, his candor saves him. He notes the old radical anthem that asks, “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?” His honest response: “To this day I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Any biography or autobiography walks the line between “life” and “times.” This book does a better job with the latter than the former. Given the racial injustice that currently tears the country apart, which Steel describes, why not call readers to join the struggle to which he has given his life? Instead, Steel makes an awkward truce with himself. Was all his earnest striving really about expiating the sins of privilege, and finally deciding it’s OK to enjoy your beach house as long as you have black friends who come visit? “The Butler’s Child,” a mostly artful episode of the central struggle in American history, suggests that the narrator has been a far better soldier in the struggle than he seems to think.
Tim Tyson, Ph.D., is a senior research scholar for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He also is the author of “Blood Done Sign My Name.”
“The Butler’s Child”
By Lewis Steel
St. Martin’s Press, 302 pages