In Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 2, “Boyhood Days.”
Chapter 2 goes into an issue that we encountered in our discussion of Chapter 1: ancestry. There are many African-Americans who feel a sense of loss about not knowing their family history, since their ancestors were ripped from their homes and taken to a foreign land (America), to be given new names, as well as the last names of their masters. That’s why Malcolm X used the “X” rather than the slave-name that a master had given his ancestor, “Little”: he was saying that he did not know who he was, for he did not know from whom he came; white society had stolen that from him. That’s why Alex Haley was so grateful that he knew from whom he descended—from the African, Kunta Kinte, who had a position of prominence in his tribe in Africa.
Washington says that one of the first things slaves did when they became free was to get new names. They wanted to internalize their sense of freedom and independence from the plantation by giving themselves a new identity—which a new name brought them. That was when Booker gave himself the last name of “Washington.”
But a big theme in this chapter concerns Booker’s attempt to compensate for his feelings of rootlessness—of not knowing who his ancestors were. Basically, he tries to find a silver lining. He wishes that he could have a noble ancestry, and he points out that being part of a long-lasting family of importance keeps white youths out of trouble, for they are concerned not only about disgracing themselves, but about disgracing their family as well. Booker, by contrast, deals with a reality in which African-Americans are not even to expected to succeed. (He says this.) How can he maintain his self-respect and compensate for the loss that he feels at not knowing who he truly is? Essentially, he settles with working hard, accomplishing important things, and establishing a legacy for his children in the process.
He looks at his mother, who was a good mother—even if he didn’t know much about his family outside of his mother and his siblings. Although she was uneducated and did not see too many possibilities for her own advancement, she wanted her children to succeed, and so she encouraged Booker as he taught himself how to read. When Booker was the only one in his school who did not have a hat, she made him one. Booker admired her for not going into debt to buy him a hat, and he said that, although he has bought many hats in his years, he does not treasure them as much as the one that his mom made for him. Then he goes on to say that the kids who made fun of his home-made hat are now poor or in the penitentiary!
As Booker tries to find a silver lining, he speculates that the hardship that African-Americans have experienced has made them into better people:
“In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reach the conclusion that often the Negro boy’s birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned. With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his task even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.”
This reminds me of what he said in Chapter 1: that slavery, while evil, ended up civilizing Africans. So far, I don’t really see in Booker T. Washington’s autobiography the rants against injustice that I’ve encountered in the writings of Frederick Douglas, or W.E.B. Du Bois. Rather, the approach I see is “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Plus, Booker believes that God has a plan. He reminds me of Equiano, a slave whose narrative indeed criticized slavery, while also maintaining a sunny optimism.