Sunday, February 19, 2017

Up from Slavery

Up From Slavery
© 1901 Booker T. Washington
332 pages

Up from Slavery is an hopeful reflection by Booker T. Washington on the future of black Americans and the American nation, as he reflects on the thirty-odd years since the abolition of slavery at the time of his writing.  But this is no mere memoir of slavery and reconstruction, for Washington's life as a teacher and founder of the Tuskegee Institute gives him a perspective on education; particularly, what sort of education most befits the cultivation of liberated men and women.  Washington's ideal education, put into practice at the Tuskegee Institute, is 'holistic' in that it places as much value on the practical -- trade skills, agriculture -- as it does book learning. It is moral and social, teaching self-ownership and self-sacrifice,   Although Washington craved knowing how to read even as a child, and his drive for self-improvement was such that he worked his way across a span of a hundred miles to attend school at the Hampton Institute,  he did not see book-learning as a magical solution to the problems of his fellow freedmen.  Some had taken earnestly to the veneer of education, but shared the same disdain towards work that had poisoned the plantation elite.  When he was asked to head the fledgling school for blacks anxious to  uplift themselves, he stressed the dignity of labor, the sense of ownership; he joined students in creating bricks, hewing wood, building the physical structure  of the school.  In this same vein, their practical skills built themselves, gave them the realization that they were capable of producing a good work that they and others could use and value. It is on that foundation that book-learning can rest, and so his students followed a Benedictine schedule of "pray and work", or in his case "study, work, and pray" -- occupied from 5:30 'til 10:00 pm.

Washington was a surprising author in many ways -- opening this memoir up with a joke, and offering insights that I would have never expected. For instance, his writing indicates not a trace of hostility towards the old elite, but rather pity and sympathy ;  his time spent among the wealthy and 'noble', in both America and in England, squelched any notion of viewing them as the enemy.  (If the reader wants to be cynical, he can conclude that Washington is dwelling most on those people like Carnegie who wanted to do some good with their wealth, and putting out of mind the less noble-minded.)   I didn't expect Washington to be as wary of reconstruction as he indicated; he voices suspicion that blacks placed into electoral office were being put there simply out of vengeance against the old aristocrats, and that this would create more racial strife.   On first reading, the Booker T. Washington of Up from Slavery reads rather like saint, a Gandhi-esque figure who endures all things because he hopes and works towards the redemption and progress of all humanity.  I suspect I should read more about Washington to get a better view of the man, but I'm highly partial to his worldview here,  his disdain for the multitude in the cities who "live by their wits" and who would have profited themselves more had they grown up on the land,   living with both body and mind.  His optimism was, alas, misplaced in some respects as the Klan -- which he dismisses as a dead thing which no one would tolerate 'now' -- was reborn with greater power in the 1920s.   His fear that looking to the government for every thing would create a new servility has unfortunately been realized...not just in blacks, but in all of us.   Even so, if illiterate slaves like Frederick Douglass and Booker T Washington could  in their respective youths realize a hunger to conduct themselves like men, sovereign actors in their own lives, there's hope for us all.


  1. Interesting. This has been appearing on my radar for some time now but I have yet to pick up a copy. I did find Malcolm X's autobiography interesting (if difficult in places) so maybe I'll give this a go too. Another author that's been popping up a lot lately is James Baldwin. I heard him speak on YouTube and was very impressed by his quiet if powerful radicalism.

  2. I have wanted to read this for along time. The philosophical and moral message sounds like it is so important. Of course this book is also an important piece pf history itself.

    I will try to get to this work this year.

  3. One of my favorite. I've also read that Washington is not as favorable as Douglass, in some circles, and obviously it is because of his hard-lined views about work and reconstruction; but I find his voice encouraging for all people. Like in your final sentence: this is the message young people need to hear: it is self-reliance and independence and liberty and success.

  4. smart guy; i read this in high school and it has stayed with me... a practical definition of personal character, imo...

  5. @Brian Joseph: I started it after lunch and didn't put it down until I was finished. Quite the stirring tale!

    @Ruth: His perspective strikes me as unique. I hope to find more of his writings.

  6. I have always wanted to read this book. When I was in grade school I read a biography of Booker T. Washington and he, along with scientists like George Washington Carver and Edison, were heroes to me.

    1. You might remember that Carver was associated with Washington's school?


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