It is common to compare Booker T. Washington unfavorably to other African American leaders or thinkers of his time or even of our own. I believe this book will help correct this. Washington, a former slave, was trying to redeem a poorly educated community and to free it...
It is common to compare Booker T. Washington unfavorably to other African American leaders or thinkers of his time or even of our own. I believe this book will help correct this. Washington, a former slave, was trying to redeem a poorly educated community and to free it from the mindset resulting from centuries of slavery and mistreatment. He wanted above all to inculcate a sense of self-reliance and a new work ethic in former slaves understandably averse to work. To this effect, he founded the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), which provided vocational training, rather than intellectual training. Washington was severely criticized for this, and for the "Atlanta Compromise" speech to a white audience in 1895 (With an open hand: "In all matters that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers." With a clenched fist: "Yet one as a hand when it comes to mutual progress.") .
Yes, we feel uncomfortable when we think about any limitation in the path of African Americans to economic progress and leading an unrestricted life. But Booker T. Washington was above all realistic, and this memoir shows the kind of obstacles he had to overcome. Thanks to his efforts, supported by such philanthropists as Julius Rosenwald (of Sears Roebuck) and others, a very large number of African Americans had access to a dignified livelihood. As a result of such initiatives, African Americans managed, just a few decades after the end of slavery, in spite of the Jim Crow legislation in place, in spite of lynchings, in spite of a whole system rigged against them, to move little by little up the social ladder, take advantage of manpower needs in fast-growing Northern industries, and enrich American culture in the arts, music, literature and other areas beyond all expectations.
Even the Tuskegee Institute evolved over the years and decades. George Washington Carver, one of the greatest scientists in the history of the United States (and also a former slave) taught there for almost half a century.
Even as he tried to improve the lot of African Americans, even as he tried to push them hard to do their best at all times, Washington never failed to remind white America of the enormous difficulties his "coloured brethren" had to overcome. A short excerpt from this book should prove the point:
"The world should not pass judgment upon the Negro, and especially the Negro youth, too quickly or too harshly. The Negro boy has obstacles, discouragements, and temptations to battle with that are little known to those not situated as he is. When a white boy undertakes a task, it is taken for granted that he will succeed. On the other hand, people are usually surprised if the Negro boy does not fail. In a word, the Negro youth starts out with the presumption against him.
"The influence of ancestry, however, is important in helping forward any individual or race, if too much reliance is not placed upon it. Those who constantly direct attention to the Negro youth''s moral weaknesses, and compare his advancement with that of white youths, do not consider the influence of the memories which cling about the old family homesteads. I have no idea, as I have stated elsewhere, who my grandmother was. I have, or have had, uncles and aunts and cousins, but I have no knowledge as to where most of them are. My case will illustrate that of hundreds of thousands of black people in every part of our country. The very fact that the white boy is conscious that, if he fails in life, he will disgrace the whole family record, extending back through many generations, is of tremendous value in helping him to resist temptations. The fact that the individual has behind and surrounding him proud family history and connection serves as a stimulus to help him to overcome obstacles when striving for success."
In the long view of history, we tend to agree more with W. E. B. Du Bois (a giant in his own right), who thought African Americans had every right to study in classical academic courses instead of vocational, agriculture-oriented programs. But history is made (or takes place, if you will) step by step, and there should be no doubt today that Booker T. Washington made a major, perhaps an unparalleled contribution to the advancement of his race. And for this, we should all, African Americans or not, Americans or not, be profoundly grateful and motivated.
I hope only that the excerpt quoted above, one of the most moving I have ever read about the entire African American experience, will inspire everyone to read this book and learn from Booker T. Washington''s own words.