`My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.'For half a century from its publication in 1901 Up from Slavery was the best known book written by an African American. The life of ex-slave Booker T Washington embodied the legendary rise of the American self-made man, and his autobiography gave prominence for the first time to the voice of agroup which had to pull itself up from extreme adversity. Washington attributes his success to his belief in many of the virtues celebrated by Benjamin Franklin: selflessness, industry, pragmatism, and optimism. But from behind the mask of the humble, plainspoken schoolmaster come hints thatreveal Washington the ambitious and tough-minded analyst of power who had to balance the demands of blacks with the constraints imposed on him by whites.To read Up from Slavery is to explore the means by which Washington rose to become the most influential and powerful black American of his time. How far he compromised African American rights in order to achieve his aims remains a matter of controversy.
I can understand why some respond negatively to the man. At one point, Washington claimed that "the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man." In context though, it's clear he means rather Southern whites were also damaged by the institution--that slavery eroded the work ethic in the South, so that manual labor became something slaves did and was looked upon with derision. Washington also claimed at one point that the very experience of slavery had left American blacks stronger "materially, intellectually, morally and religiously" than their African brethren. He seemed to be protesting too much in constantly insisting on the good relations between black and white Southerners. (At one point claiming the Ku Klux Klan was extinct. Admittedly, I once watched a documentary that noted the organization was in fact greatly diminished after Reconstruction--they'd have a resurgence a decade or so later after the book's publication.) And the praise of his Northern white benefactors seemed a bit...fulsome--and shameless name-dropping. (Of course, probably hits me that way partly because it was the style of the times--this is the Victorian Era after all.) But over the course of the book, that did wear at me.
Of course, I do understand Washington was trying to influence a white audience in a time of eroding civil rights (thus the supposed "minstrel mask"). And never, ever did I get the impression either that Washington thought blacks weren't the equal of whites morally, socially or intellectually or that they should not be legally. It's clear Washington thought both slavery and segregation deeply immoral--even if at times I can understand why Du Bois said Washington pursued "an accommodationist strategy." In his famous Atlanta Exposition Address--which Du Bois called the "Atlanta Compromise," Washington, to the applause of white Southerners, said "in all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." It's hard to disagree with Du Bois who saw Washington as ceding too much in rejecting political power and not insisting on equal civil rights--and irked at his sometimes anti-intellectualism in his insistence of an "industrial" (think vocational) education over a liberal arts higher education.
That's not to say that I don't think there isn't some value in what Washington has to say and what he accomplished. Du Bois wanted to depend on the training up the "talented tenth" into an intellectual elite and saw political power as key to gaining equal civil rights. Washington argued for economic power through self-reliance, a strong work ethic, and practical vocational education. This isn't just a black issue. I can see echoes of this argument today in contemporary debates on poverty and education. And I can understand why after witnessing the transient and seemingly futile period of black office-holding after Reconstruction, Washington might feel the political route was premature and unreliable as a way of progress. And with the Tuskegee Institute situated right in Alabama, Washington was right in the belly of the beast--in the heart of the once slave-holding Confederacy. He may have felt in conceding on civil rights (if concede he did) he wasn't giving up anything within his reach.
Beyond the political issues, this is at times a fascinating piece of history, particularly in the first 50 pages or so of the 146-page book dealing with the young Washington and his memories of slavery and the Reconstruction Era and his efforts to gain an education. The first paragraph reminded me of the opening of Frederick Douglas' slave narrative. Like Douglas, Washington didn't know his own date of birth. Douglas explained that was something slave owners deliberately tried to deny slaves. Also like Douglas, Washington heard rumors his father was white but didn't know him personally. Washington's lifetime took him from slavery to the Civil War through Reconstruction to Jim Crow. It's more later on, when he started to relate the building of the Tuskegee Institute that something about Washington's style started to grate on me, and much of the account began to be tedious. (Goodness, you wouldn't believe Washington's ode to the toothbrush!) Which is a shame, because as William Andrews noted, this is the story of "a former slave who became the most powerful African-American of this era." He started Tuskegee Institute from a "shanty" and a "hen house" and from it built a great American educational institution. But something felt lacking, absent. Maybe Washington himself. There seemed little introspection or humor or even anything really personal at all in his voice. I get why Andrews feels Washington wore a mask, and it takes close reading and outside information to get it to slip a bit to see the complex man underneath. That's where I did find this Norton Critical Edition, which included essays on Washington, including the famous critique by Du Bois, invaluable. It makes rating this book difficult. I do feel this is worth reading as a piece of history--but as a biography it left me feeling decidedly ambivalent.
This is one book I had a hard time putting down. It reveals a man deeply committed to helping African Americans in post-Reconstruction America earn respect based on their skillful work and valuable contributions to society. A quote from the book seems to summarize Washington’s personal philosophy: “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.” He believed that striving for excellence and working cooperatively with all people, regardless of ethnicity or station, was the key to the black man winning his rightful place in the world.
It is recommended reading for those wishing to broaden their understanding of and appreciation for African American history, post-Civil War race relations, or the history of higher education in America. The Penguin Classics edition has an index, endnotes (18 in all), and an interesting introduction by historian and Washington biographer Louis R. Harlan.
But this book has made me curious about several things, rather than informing me about them. It seems that Mr. Washington had three wives -- but he never really says much about what happened to any of them. He seems to talk a lot about lots of things, and yet, I don't feel quite as if I know much about him. I guess I'll have to do some more research.
This is a truly touching story. The beginning of the book was very moving and emotional as he speaks of struggling to get an education as an African American boy. Though dry at time, and almost annoyingly optimistic there were some really nice inspirational quotes in the book that I was able to note (highlight and such). I hope to read again and take down a lot more of his positive work ethic.
* Booker's firm belief that merit would be recognized and rewarded. He considered this a great universal truth and a consolation for the persecuted. He considered this principle a key to improving racial relations.
*To expand on the above thought, he thought the whole future of race relations hinged on whether or not the members of his race could make themselves of indispensable value to their community
*Again, "the individual who do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of race"
*He thought contact with great men and women of wisdom to be more useful than book learning
*His thoughts on public speaking: "give them an idea for every word"--in other words, don't waste words. It is in injustice to speak merely for the sake of speaking, one should have a deep heartfelt message to deliver.
*"I have found that the happiest people are those who do the most for others; the most miserable are those who do the least"
* He believed in teaching students the dignity of labour, and he had little patience for schools that did not teach this. Indeed, many of the buildings, crops, and things needed by his school were supplied by student labour.
*I love his thoughts on how to best administer and organization and hove good relations between employers/administrators and labour/students: He asked the students to write him a letter or have a meeting with him with their criticisms, complaints and suggestions. He thought many disputes could be avoided if the higher ups would cultivate a habit of getting nearer to their employees, consulting and advising with them, and letting them feel that they have shared interests.
Mr. Washington was a great optimist, and believed the best of people, in some ways this book made me sad to think how far short of his ideals we have all come. But in other ways, we've come a long way, baby. Although some of his thinking seems outdated, and impractical and even wrong to us now, it is good to read it. He wrote this having lived through the worst of times, and was trying to work out how to make life better for his race and race relations better. We haven't solved that one yet, but always we forge on.
For the educational theories alone, this book was a worthy and important read to me, but the history, the story and the man made it fascinating from start to finish.