Messiness

I started Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery by reading the preface and chapter 1, “A Slave Among Slaves.”

The preface was interesting because Washington said that he wrote the book in his spare time—“on board trains, or at hotels or railroad stations while I have been waiting for trains, or during the moments that I could spare from my work while at Tuskegee.”  He was a very busy man.  Could I write a book in my spare time—one that people would actually want to read (as Washington did)?  I’ve heard that Charles Dickens quickly wrote his Christmas Carol so he could make some money, for he was in a state of financial destitution.  Look at the success that was!  But I know of professors who need a grant in order to do the necessary research to write their books.  They may need more than spare time.  But, of course, they do research, whereas Washington was writing more from his experience, rather than books.  (That’s my understanding.)  The genres are different.  One requires more rigor than another.  And yet, both are important.

Chapter 1 is about Washington’s childhood in slavery.  He talks about how he knows nothing about the history of his family beyond his mother.  This was a point that I saw on Roots: The Next Generation, in which Alex Haley remarked that Malcolm X felt that there was a wall separating him from his past because he did not know anything about his ancestors—thus the name “X.”  Alex Haley, by contrast, was continually reminded by his family that he was descended from Kunta Kinte, as were the generations before him.  Personally, I don’t feel a loss of identity on account of my lack of knowledge about my family history.  I’m not sure why—if it’s because I’m self-centered, or individualistic.  At the end of Roots: The Next Generation, Alex Haley urged viewers to ask their parents, grandparents, and other relatives about their family history—for these relatives may not have told their stories because nobody asked them to do so.  And so I’m not the only one who doesn’t ask many questions about the history of my family.  But, as a result of Roots, people became interested in their own genealogies.

Were some African-Americans interested in their genealogy because they wanted to know of some reality for their race that was apart from the oppression and second-class status that they experienced in America?  Were they seeking some sense of connection precisely because they were strangers in a strange land?  Were they solidifying their own sense of humanity, in a world that regarded them as chattel, by looking to establish that they had an identify—within a family that had a history?  Both Roots and Booker T. Washington remark that slaves were esteemed as horses and mules by their white slaveowners.  Could the desire of the slaves and their descendants to know about their past—and their alienation from not knowing about it—be due to society’s dehumanization of them?

Overall, in Chapter 1 of Washington’s book, I get a sense of disorder.  According to Washington, African-American slaves did not eat together as a family, but they ate throughout the day from whatever scraps they could get.  Booker and his siblings did not sleep in beds for a long time.  Booker talks about an experience he had when he was a child and was walking a horse that had a sack of corn on its back, in order to take the corn to be ground.  When the sack fell, Booker was too small to put it back onto the horse, and so he had to wait for a passer-by who would help him out.  That meant that Booker came home really late!  Disorder!

There was a Civil War.  And in the midst of that, the African-Americans slaves had mixed feelings.  Even though they had no access to a newspaper, they closely followed the events of the war, hoping that the Union would win and that they would become free.  (A slave who went to the post office usually heard whites talking about the latest news, and he relayed that to the other slaves.)  And yet, they had a sense of affection for their masters.  They mourned when some white members of the family died in battle.  They eagerly protected the white women of the plantation when the men were away.  Even after the Civil War, many of the slaves remained in contact with their former masters, helping them when they wanted help.

Washington even expresses ambivalence about the institution of slavery in America.  He makes clear that he opposes it, and he talks about the brutal middle passage, in which Africans suffered on slave-ships.  And yet, he does not blame anyone for it.  He says that slavery became so entrenched in American society, that it was difficult to abolish it.  He also states that “when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, 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.”  He then says that his purpose in saying that is not to justify slavery, but to show that God can work good out of a bad situation.

But he also acknowledges that slavery had a deleterious effect—on both whites and African-Americans.  Slavery lessened the value of manual labor in the eyes of white elites, and so they did not learn skills that would help them when they no longer had slaves.  And the slaves, because they didn’t have a great interest in the plantation, were not meticulous about its upkeep.  This reminded me of what W.E.B. Du Bois said in The Souls of Black Folk: that African-Americans lacked an incentive to work hard, and so there were some who chose not to do so.

But I’m intrigued by Washington’s point about divine providence working good out of bad.  There are times when I look back at my life and see some bad things, and yet there were some good effects that came out of them.  But were those bad things worth the good effects?  In some respects yes, and in some respects no.  One thing that makes bad “bad” is that it causes harm, which slavery did.  Does any silver lining justify that?  And if it does, then is slavery no longer “bad”?  And, if God can bring good out of bad, why wouldn’t God go all the way—by removing all bad consequences of a bad action?  But there is such a thing as cause and effect, for better and for worst, and God may not always (or even usually) choose to intervene in that.  But, hopefully, people can learn from their mistakes and do right in the future.

My last paragraph there was pretty messy, but Washington’s chapter itself had a degree of messiness, as well-written as it was!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Messiness

  1. denouement32 says:

    Good and insightful posting! I think I’ll read that book as well soon. And I think Washington was saying that Black people are stronger IN SPITE OF slavery, not because of it.

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Denouement! I’ll be blogging through the other chapters as well. I recently blogged through the book by Washington’s critic, W.E.B. Du Bois. Both books are online. I’m glad to be reading them, since I’ve long heard about the controversy concerning the two men, but now I get to read their own words.

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