I picked up a copy of Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington so that I could learn a bit more about African American history. This is a subject I know little of, and it’s something that I felt I should learn more about.
This need to learn was stimulated by the recent events in Baltimore; a city I am quite familiar with. A city my Father’s side of the family hails from. A city I have been to countless times.
I then saw Baltimore engulfed in flames and protests and tried to make sense of it all. Perhaps a book could give me some guidance.
Up From Slavery gave me more answers then I could ask for. In fact, his prescient advice would have solved most of the ills of the African American community even to this day.
Among a large class, there seemed to be a dependence upon the government for every conceivable thing. The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves, but wanted the federal officials to create one for them. How many times I wished then and have often wished since, that by some power of magic, I might remove the great bulk of these people into the country districts and plant them upon the soil – upon the solid and never deceptive foundation of Mother Nature, where all nations and races that have ever succeeded have gotten their start – a start that at first may be slow and toilsome, but one that nevertheless is real.”
Yet, his words have and will go unheeded.
The Great Civil Rights Debate
I’ve always understood that early African-American leaders either fell under the ideology of Booker Washington, or W.E.B. DuBois, a contemporary of Washington. The two split ideologically around the turn of the 20th century and their views could not be more different.
Reading Up From Slavery, Washington’s views can be summed up in a few points:
- Work Hard
- Emphasize Vocational Training
- Disregard civil rights at the moment
- Know Your Place
Quite frankly, it’s something most blacks don’t want to hear today, nor did they want to listen to it back then.
Rather, they wanted to hear that civil rights should be given immediately as it is their god-given right. They should also have access to the same institutions of higher learning as did whites. This is not to be done by patiently waiting; rather it should be imposed by the government.
This is the view of W.E.B. DuBois.
I plan on reading The Souls of Black Folk by Dubois, one of, if not his most, prolific works. Yet from what I’ve read about him he was an academic, sociologist, and a socialist; like many powerful liberals today.
This site is not the place for political discussion, but the book has powerful overtones about the future of African Americans, and their path forward can’t be overlooked. From what I can see they did not choose the path of Booker T. and that choice may be the cause of their plight today and throughout the 20th century.
It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of those privileges.”
The Story of Booker T.
Booker Washington was born on a plantation in rural Virginia in the late 1850’s. He never knew his father, a white man who was a nearby planter. His father was virtually non-existent in his life. Nor did he have any of the privileges of being white, as even if someone was 1/16 black they were still considered a ‘negro’; a 2nd class citizen.
When Booker was just a young man the Civil War had begun. This brought great hope to his fellow slaves as Emancipation was an inevitability.
Then, one day a Union soldier stood on the plantation’s porch with the family that owned the house and slaves. He read a speech, declaring them emancipated. Surprisingly there were no hard feelings, in fact, both sides were saddened.
I have long since ceased to cherish any spirit of bitterness against the Southern white people on account of the enslavement of my race.”
Booker never had any bad words to say about his owners. In fact, he even goes so far as to highlight the benefits of the institution of slavery:
…notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe…
This I say, not to justify slavery—on the other hand, I condemn it as an institution, as we all know that in America it was established for selfish and financial reasons, and not from a missionary motive—but to call attention to a fact, and to show how Providence so often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose…”
His reasoning is that:
The black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did…
The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labor, as a rule, t be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority. Hence labor was something that both races of the slave plantation sought to escape…
My old master ad many boys and girls, but not one, so far as I know, ever mastered as single trade or special line of productive industry. The girls were not taught to cook, sew, or to take care of the house. All of this was left to the slaves.”
This is a view shared by few today, or during that time. It would take a lot of forgiveness to look past the cruelty of the institution to try and find a silver lining. Yet, Booker did, and it was this positivity and optimism that brought him so much success in life.
…I learned the lesson that great men cultivate love, and that only little men cherish a spirit of hatred. I learned that assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; and that oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.”
The Importance of Education
Many argued then, and still today, about how best to move the African American community forward. Booker realized that the best hope for blacks to achieve equality, or at least a semblance of equality, in the long run was through education. And not just through math and history, but by learning valuable skills and employing hard labor.
The ambition to secure an education was most praiseworthy and encouraging. The idea, however, was too prevalent that, as soon as one secured a little education, in some unexplainable way he would be free from most of the hardships of the world, and, at any rate, could live without manual labour. There was a further feeling that a knowledge, however little, of the Greek and Latin languages would make one a very superior human being, something bordering almost on the supernatural.”
In fact, the renowned Historically Black College, Tuskegee University, was founded by Booker T. Literally, it was built from the ground up by the students who wanted to attend the school. This drew much criticism, but he knew it had a greater purpose.
Education is not a thing apart from life—not a “system,” nor a philosophy; it is direct teaching how to live and how to work.”
I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.”
An Uncle Tom or something more?
Many today would look back at Booker T. Washington and dub him an Uncle Tom, or a black man who coddles to the desires of the white population. Sadly, I believe this is a dangerous ideology.
This is because Washington’s advice was full of wisdom, and he picked up on many potential problems the black community may face going forward:
I tried to emphasize the fact that while the Negro should not be deprived by unfair means of the franchise, political agitation alone would not save him, and that back of the ballot he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character, and that no race without these elements could permanently succeed.
The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”
The above quote is incredibly relevant given today’s political and racial climates. African Americans are protesting in the streets, shouting “No Justice, No Peace” but how successful will these endeavors be?
If Booker T. was around today, he would tell African Americans to stop protesting and give up trying to ring about change through equality. Instead, he would advocate for vocational training and other vocational reforms.
Yet, it is likely that he would be lambasted by the modern media, an he would have to deal with the likes of Al Sharpton who leads a loyal crowd.
The Wisdom of Booker T. Washington
In many cases the reasons we start a book aren’t the same reasons we finish it.
At the end of the day, I don’t see myself becoming a major political figure who will overhaul our society and do what’s best for all people. Rather, I will focus on my life in the immediate future.
The wisdom of Up From Slavery is incredibly profound, and offers some of the best business advice in an autobiography that I’ve ever read.
He even pens a chapter ‘The Secret of Success in Public Speaking’ about how he came to secure numerous public speaking engagements, and how he approached them.
In order to be successful in any undertaking, I think the main thing is for one to grow to the point where he completely forgets himself; that is, to lose himself in a great cause. In proportion as one loses himself in this way, in the same degree does he get the highest happiness out of his work.”
Here are a few more wise words:
I have begun everything with the idea that I could succeed, and I never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed.”
Great men cultivate love and only little men cherish a spirit of hatred; assistance given to the weak makes the one who gives it strong; oppression of the unfortunate makes one weak.”
I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”
In my contact with people I find that, as a rule, it is only the little, narrow people who live for themselves, who never read good books, who do not travel, who never open up their souls in a way to permit them to come into contact with other souls–with the great outside world. No man whose vision is bounded by colour can come into contact with what is highest and best in the world. In meeting men, in many places, I have found that the happiest people are those who do the most for others; the most miserable are those who do the least.”
My experience in getting money for Tuskegee has taught me to have no patience with those people who are always condemning the rich because they are rich, and because they do not give more to objects of charity. In the first place, those who are guilty of such sweeping criticisms do not know how many people would be made poor, and how much suffering would result, if wealthy people were to part all at once with any large proportion of their wealth in a way to disorganize and cripple great business enterprises. “
Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.””
If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.”
I had no expectations going into this book. If I did, this book would have surpassed them; I was really impressed.
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