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Getting Down to "Up From Slavery" (8.8.20)

I love historic sites. Before the world turned into a giant pile of garbage, the last one I visited (in fall 2019) was the Booker T. Washington National Monument -- the birthplace and early home of the famed educator. Well, "early home" is a bit of an overstatement. "Open air prison" is more accurate. Washington was born on a Virginia plantation in 1856 and spent the bulk of his first decade as a slave. His journey forward, and his efforts to guide others on a similar journey, provides the compelling framework for "Up From Slavery."

The book, refined from serialized essays with the help of a favorite ghost-writer, was published in 1901. Washington was already a national figure at the time. He had founded the Tuskegee Institute, a school dedicated to the education of African-Americans, and led it for 20 years. His advocacy and fundraising on behalf of the school put him in contact with civic and political leaders around the country, and he was in high demand as a speaker. His opening remarks at a huge exposition in Atlanta in 1895 -- delivered to a mixed race crowd -- were historically impactful; the correspondent for the New York World said Washington "must rank from this time forth as the foremost man of his race in America." Undoubtedly, many people of the era felt Washington was a natural successor to that position, as Frederick Douglass had died earlier that year. (It's a credit to Washington that people thought of him that way; it's a also a stark illustration of the situation in 1895, where one person could be seen as the spokesperson for an entire race. Yikes.)

So what's it all about? Washington's life is presented as an illustration for his message: That black people -- still burdened with the legacy of their recently ended slavery -- needed to be relentlessly pragmatic to start moving toward equality.

For Washington's family and countless others, the joy of their emancipation was soured by new realities: They were without money, without property, without academic education, and without the basic structures (horrible though they were) that had organized their daily existence. His mother and stepfather took the family to West Virginia, where former slaves could find work as physical laborers. Booker, his siblings and his step-father all were employed at the local salt works and coal mines.

Obsessed with the need for an education, Booker scraped together barely enough money for the trip across to Virginia to the Hampton Institute, a school founded by abolitionists for the education of freedmen. His labor paid his way through school -- he started as a janitor, and his de facto "entrance exam" was a white-glove test of rooms he had been told to clean. Booker was not an exception; part of the Hampton philosophy was to cultivate a belief in the dignity of labor, as well as provide former slaves with a crash course in the habits, values and expectations of free (i.e. white) society. (Several times, he makes a point of extolling the virtues of regular bathing and clean clothes, and he devotes a lengthy passage to his requirement that all students at Tuskegee have their own toothbrush.)

After his studies were complete, Washington established himself as a teacher back in West Virginia; but the directors of Hampton soon invited him back to teach for them. When community leaders in Alabama hoped to establish a similar school for former slaves, the leaders of Hampton recommended their star pupil. Starting practically from scratch with 30 students and almost no funding, Washington soon raised the money to acquire a former plantation as a campus. Physically building the Tuskegee Institute became an opportunity to instill the dignity of labor; students saw their academic pursuits tempered by instruction in construction, brickmaking, farming (to feed the boarders and staff), sewing and more. The diaspora of successful graduates throughout the South increased the fame of both the school and its leader.

Washington tells this story while intermixing his opinions on the future of his race. It was his contention that too many freed slaves saw emancipation as an end to hard labor. The first step forward, he believed, was for black people to master practical trades and become economically indispensable to both their white and black neighbors. There was no point in studying advanced mathematics if you could not first balance your own checkbook; there was little value in learning Greek or Latin over agriculture, when your family was starving. He extended the premise to race relations as well; by Washington's logic, civil rights and full acceptance by whites were (at the time) a bridge too far, and fighting for them before laying the proper foundation was largely wasted effort.

Writing in 1901, he has a telling passage on what some people today call "white privilege" -- and the heavy burden blacks felt in all endeavors, as any failure would surely be viewed as confirmation of stereotypes about their entire race. But he also describes a great sense of pride in the struggle: "In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reached the conclusion that often the Negro boy's birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned. With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race. From any point of view, I had rather be what I am, a member of the Negro race, than be able to claim membership with the most favoured of any other race."

But ultimately, he did not place the onus for advancement solely on black people. The South could not hope to prosper with so many of its citizens mired in the wrongs of the past. America could not hope to prosper if the South fell behind. So the advancement of black people was the advancement of America.

The writing throughout is brisk and engaging; you could say it's as pragmatic as the underlying message. Washington maintains that his message is universal. One of the principles of his speeches, he insists, is that anything he would say to Northern audience he would also say to a Southern audience. There's also a Pollyannaish bent: the anecdotes of racism are mild (the Klan and lynchings barely get a mention); he frequently heaps praise on the tolerance and support of the white community; he emphasizes that there was very real progress in his lifetime; criticism of hateful white leaders (who absolutely existed in abundance) is nowhere to be seen. He accentuates the positive to a sometimes conspicuous extent.

And that makes sense, if you understand the likely context: It's as much of a sales pitch as an autobiography. Washington spent half of each year on the road, promoting his school and his philosophy and raising funds. He was in his mid-40s when the book was published, so that work was ongoing. His story and his observations seem crafted to satisfy the widest audience possible; there are also plenty of humblebrag moments where Washington just quotes long passages from glowing press clips. Surely there were many white people who admired Washington for presenting a positive plan of action; but surely some were more receptive to Washington's message because it didn't inconvenience them very much. In fact, readers who believed that blacks were inherently inferior could probably twist Washington's words to absolve themselves of any moral responsibilities. It gave them permission to kick the can of civil rights down the road.

That has been the major criticism of Booker T. Washington. "Up From Slavery" was tremendously influential, but even in Washington's lifetime it inspired a backlash. Some black leaders decried his philosophy as "accommodation," and ultimately capitulation to inequality. His most notable critic was W.E.B. Du Bois, the Harvard-educated sociologist and eventual founder of the NAACP. In 1903 he published "The Souls of Black Folk," which included a direct critique of Washington's work. It sounds like a classic "practical vs. intellectual" slugfest, and it has tremendous relevance to the modern world. So that's next on my reading list.

But hey, why not add Booker T. to yours? "Up From Slavery" is not a long read, the writing is very approachable, and the price is right -- I paid 50 cents for a Kindle edition, but you can get the full text for free online. ("The Souls of Black Folk" is also in the public domain, for what it's worth.) At the very least, Google the "cast down your buckets where you are" speech from 1895, as it's a very succinct introduction to Washington's philosophy. It's easily worth your time.

Quarantine Angst (7.27.20)

It's Monday morning. Who's ready to have their mind blown?

Today the DC mayor announced visitors from 27 states have to quarantine two weeks when visiting the district. The mayor defined a high-risk location as "locations where the seven-day moving average of daily new COVID-19 cases is 10 or more per 100,000 people."

The mayor's money quote: "We know, unfortunately, that there are states that are seeing significant spikes and new cases. We know that there are places where people are not being as cautious or making the sacrifices that we’re making here in D.C."

Looking at the CDC tracker of cases over the last 7 days ...

Fun fact #1: By its own standards, Washington DC has to quarantine from itself. Our average is currently over 10. By the mayor's logic we should all be sheltering in place right now. Why aren't we?

Fun fact #2: Maryland and Virginia should also be on the quarantine list, but they're exempt, I guess because they touch DC? And you know, that's how quarantines work when you're trying to stop the spread of a deadly disease. Science!

Fun fact #3: I picked a big "safe" state not on the quarantine list: Illinois. I used that state's numbers and census population estimates to calculate avg. daily new cases per 100,000. If I'm doing the math right it's at 11.1. (I divided the state population by 100,000, then divided that number by the average new cases per day over the last week.)

Fun fact #4: Use that same CDC page and look at overall recorded cases per 100,000. By that metric, DC so far has done "worse" than 42 states.

The way I read all this: The city government is doing a bad job, and they're trying desperately to paint it as a good job. They're "following the science" and saying we're all making noble shared sacrifices that everyone is on board with. When cases start going up, who's to blame? Not us! Last week the health director said it was (anecdotally) all these people traveling from Texas and Florida and the Carolinas. Today it's the fault of all those other places that are "not being as cautious." And it could never have had any relationship at all to the mass gatherings that the mayor participated in (sometimes without a mask) -- they said those had no connection at all to the spread! It has nothing to do with household spread, or the fact that the city early on might have failed miserably in its communications and outreach with the hardest hit neighborhoods -- which were primarily black and Hispanic.

If you live in DC, this should be EXTREMELY worrisome to you, because it's creepy propaganda. Rhetorically, the mayor keeps waving the bloody shirt of public health, while ignoring data or best practices when they're inconvenient. The city isn't making things better, while simultaneously committing to "sacrifices" that potentially could destroy a lot of neighborhoods for the next five years.

2020 (7.25.20)

My hobby is reading history and visiting historic sites. When things seem crazy in the present, it's a relief to know they were usually crazier in the past. In the books I read, most crowds weren't enlightened, most discourse wasn't nicer, most leaders weren't more noble, and on more than one occasion mob mentality ruled the day. In fact, the trend line for America has gone steadily up, as our society has generally moved away from ignorance and hate. It's not always at the pace we'd like, or that some groups deserve. But things have always been getting better.

That belief has helped me keep an even keel over the last 20 years. But I don't know what to make of 2020.

Double standards rule. So many people demanding empathy for their concerns often categorically deny empathy to those with competing concerns. Many of those demanding safety for all look the other way as a human shield of "essential" workers is placed between them and the virus. Saying no death from the virus is justified, they submit to plans that have killed and will kill thousands and thousands of people in other ways.

Our leaders flagrantly contradict themselves one week to the next, and many of those leaders are barely called to account. People shouting "follow the science" routinely ignore data they don't like, and make little effort at applying the scientifc method.

Language has broken down. John Lewis, a revered figure, will lie in state at the Capitol this week. He was known for standing up for himself, standing against racists, and standing alongside a man who earnestly asked for all people to be judged by the content of their character. As people praise John Lewis' legacy, the current belief in some circles is that racism can only be committed by one kind of person -- and the way you identify such people is the color of their skin. That definition is galling to most, but media outlets and corporate PR offices have normalized it in record time. Some people calling for an end to hate have shrugged their shoulders at a recent wave of anti-Semitic comments from athletes and entertainers. On social media, many people expressed their outrage, but tens of thousands also proudly endorsed the comments, while most news outlets yawned.

A common response to all of this is to blame the president. Well, no. He is a boor, and the country will be better when he has left the national stage. But nothing the president says or does prevents you, the individual, from being a decent, rational or empathic person.

The history of 2020 won't be about the virus, or protests, or the election. It will be a history of fear: people afraid for their health, in many instances far beyond reason; people afraid of responsibility, not wanting the blame for the consequences of something far beyond their control; too many people afraid to even politely challenge the forced reordering of their lives.

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