Sunday, October 5, 2008

Book #24 - Up From Slavery (Booker T. Washington)

"Up from Slavery" is a classic piece of Americana that I suspect is not read as much as it used to be. It is the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, who rose from being a slave to becoming arguably the most dominant black spokesperson at the beginning of the twentieth century.

He was born around 1858, although he is not sure of the exact year or date. His mother was a plantation worker in Virginia. His father was a white man who lived nearby. He says his owners were not especially cruel compared to others, but since he refuses to speak badly of anyone in this book, that may be taken with a grain of salt. He was six or seven when the Civil War ended and he and his family were freed. This was one of the more interesting anecdotes in the book. He writes that all the slaves knew the war was going badly for the south, which meant they would soon be free. Deserting soldiers were a common sight along the roads. One day an announcement came that all the slaves should gather at the plantation house. The master and his family were all there, as was a uniformed officer. The officer read a long paper, presumably the Emancipation Proclamation, and then announced that all the slaves were free and could go when and where they pleased. Everyone rejoiced, and there were "wild scenes of ecstasy". But that didn't the time the slaves returned to their cabins, it began to dawn on them that they suddenly had responsibility for their lives, and didn't really know what to do. All that evening, many of the former slaves quietly went back to the plantation house to have whispered conversations with their former owner. Booker even writes that the slaves felt sorry for their former owner and his family. Again, though, I have a hard time believing this. One of the problems I had with this book is that it is relentlessly, almost painfully optimistic. Clearly Booker wants peace and harmony between the races, and he takes great pains to disparage no one. To the modern ear this seems to ring a bit false. But was it? Was he really this optimistic and altruistic? Surely he must have encountered terrible prejudice at times, yet he doesn't report this, and throughout the book goes to great lengths to explain how white people have helped him, his cause (we'll get to that), and his race throughout his life.

But I digress. After being freed, Booker's mother got married and the family moved to Malden, West Virginia, where Booker's stepfather worked in the coal mines. Booker himself started working in the mines, but that didn't last for more than a few years. He had an almost insatiable thirst for education and learning, and studied as much as he could on his own at night. Booker was the exact opposite of a slacker. His relentless drive to work, learn, and succeed were unbelievable. He eventually made his way to the Hampton Institute in Virginia, which had been set up as a school for freed slaves. He convinced the school to let him in, agreeing to do janitorial work full time to pay for his schooling. He eventually graduated, winning the admiration of the school's white president, Samuel Armstrong. After attending Wayland Seminary to learn to become a teacher, Booker was recommended by Samuel Armstrong to head up a new school for freed slaves in Tuskegee, Alabama. While these posts were usually held by whites, the school's founders took Armstrong up on his recommendation, and asked Booker to head up the school at the age of 25. He would head the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) for the rest of his life.

The first third of the book details Booker's childhood and education, while the second third or so details his work in building up Tuskegee from a shack into a major educational institution. Two things stand out. First, he firmly believed that not only should students learn in the usual sense (classes, books) but that they should also work themselves through school, and learn a trade. Unbelievably, most of the buildings erected at Tuskegee over the years were built by the students. The students also made the bricks for the buildings, and ran a farm that grew the food for the school. Booker believed that black people needed to learn trades to be able to support themselves, and that if whites could see that blacks were hard-working assets to their communities, they would be more accepted into American society. This became somewhat controversial within the African American community (and this is not mentioned in the book). Prominent write W.E. DuBois argued that blacks should get the same liberal arts education as whites, and that a well-educated black vanguard would help push the cause for civil rights. In DuBois's mind, focusing an education on the industrial arts was holding blacks to a limited set of options.

The second thing that stands out about Washington's work at Tuskegee is that much of his time was spent in soliciting funds for the school. He starts out in the local community, asking for money from both blacks and whites. He works hard to build up relationships with the local white people so that they will look upon the school with pride, and thus be more likely to donate to it. And he starts traveling to the northeast, seeking donations from philanthropists. He must have been an extremely persuasive and charming person, because he totally succeeds. He builds up a large network of donors, and hobnobs with the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and others.

The last third of the book details Washington's accounts of traveling to visit donors, and giving speeches. He became quite famous as an orator, and delivered one of America's most famous speeches at an exhibition in Atlanta in 1895. The "Atlanta Compromise" speech encouraged whites to hire black workers and accept them into local communities. He also argues that agitating for social equality is "extremist folly". Other would disagree with this, but white people were soothed, and the speech was a turning point in Washington's ability to raise more money for Tuskegee and black education. This last part of the book I found not nearly as interesting as the first 2/3 of the book...Booker's struggles for success have ended, so it's just not as interesting. Plus, there's that relentless optimism, praising this person and that person as the greatest person ever to walk the earth. He sounds like he's plugging something, which I guess, in effect, he was. After all, you can't expect donations from people if you put them or their friends down in your autobiography. Because of this relentless optimism, it's clear this book was written at the beginning, rather than the end, of the twentieth century...the mood and tone seem a bit dated now. Regardless, it offers a unique glimpse into the years when African Americans were recently released from least for the first 2/3 of the book.

Next on my's back to Victorian England!

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