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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.

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