Up from Slavery (Signet Classics)

Up from Slavery - Booker T. Washington, Ishmael Reed The Preface, by William Andrews, a scholar of African-American literature, called the 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery "one of the few African-American texts that can be legitimately termed a classic" and its subject, Booker T. Washington, "one of the most controversial figures in African-American history." Some months ago I read the landmark 1952 novel of African-American literature by Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. One of the characters, Bledsoe, is famously based upon Booker T. Washington, and the portrayal is scathing enough to strip paint. Washington has a reputation among some as an "Uncle Tom" and his vision famously conflicted with that of W.E.B. Du Bois. The Preface notes that Du Bois' critique "Of Booker T. Washington and Others" in the 1903 The Souls of Black Folk. signaled the beginning of the split on Washington within the African-American community and says that in Up From Slavery Washington wore a "minstrel mask." 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.