I must admit, I find Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901) problematic. It raises the question of how much we trust the narrative of a person whose story doesn’t align with our currently held beliefs. I came to this book knowing only that W.E.B. Du Bois (whose The Souls of Black Folk is amazing and insightful and worthy of a reread) had some beef with the author’s philosophies. Having read Washington, I now see why.
In his autobiography, Washington goes against everything I’ve been taught to believe about slavery. While I recognize, as Alex Haley illustrates in Roots, that being a free white did not guarantee an easier life than that of a slave, I’ve always believed that the opportunity freedom offered was far greater than any of the luxuries of slavery. Yet, Washington asserts that although freedom was desired, “notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did.” What he means is that, because slaves were forced to do manual labor, they were in a good position to begin a new life when slavery was abolished. The white slave owners’ children, however, looked down upon labor and had never learned a trade and, therefore, had no sense of self-reliance. Washington further writes that the slaves rejoiced when the Emancipation Proclamation was read, but that their rejoicing soon turned to serious thoughts as to how they were to provide for themselves and their families outside of their owner’s homes. In writing this, is Washington a slavery apologist? Or is he simply recognizing, as Haley did, that being a slave could sometimes afford a better life than a poor white?
This isn’t a case of someone today thinking about what it must have been like for the slaves and finding some reason to pardon their owners…Washington was born a slave. Are we to disbelieve his firsthand account? How do we incorporate this into our general discussion of slavery? If nothing, I’d be curious to see how Washington would react if he knew of race relations today. I can’t help but think that he did not expect us to continue to be in such racial turmoil, that for all our black CEOs or, hell, our president, there is still a fear of being black in America. How would he react to learning about what happened in later years to the men at Tuskegee, unknowingly left to die from syphilis? To hearing the news of Trayvon Martin? To reading Between the World and Me? Up from Slavery is steadfastly hopeful – would Washington hold those same hopes today?
Although I can see how the book is important – coming from an intelligent, self-educated individual who succeeded against great hardships – I don’t find its message particularly inspiring. I don’t find my core stirred the way I did when I read Native Son. I don’t feel awakened the way I did when I read Roots. I don’t feel called to action the way I did when I read Du Bois. Instead, I feel the way I did when, after Obama’s election, so many people claimed that racism was over. Washington, in his excessive hopefulness, strikes me as woefully naive. True, I have the knowledge of the past hundred years of history to inform my opinion, whereas Washington could only speculate about the future. Still, I can’t help but feel that where these other authors presented a stark reality, Washington writes only what he wishes to be true.
Booker T. Washington is undoubtedly an important figure in our collective American history. He is the epitome of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, of triumphing against incredible odds. I do not mean to diminish his contribution to education as the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, or his efforts to put aside the past that, unfortunately, continues to haunt the nation today. Education is important, as is skilled labor, as is forgiving the past and learning to work with those who were once our adversaries. “[I] resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him,” Washington writes. “With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race.” Yet, I do not agree that we should forget all that Washington claims is no longer relevant. Up from Slavery raises many questions as to how the nation should move forward from its troubling past. Unfortunately, we have 115 years of history to show us that we still haven’t found those answers.