In Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 7, “Early Days at Tuskegee.”
Booker T. Washington is known for his work with the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In this chapter, he talks about its incredibly modest beginnings, as well as the poverty in Tuskegee. A recurring theme in his book is “rags to riches” (my phrase, not his): a person (usually Booker T. Washington) or an institution (usually one that Booker T. Washington is helping) is struggling in its early stages, but it rises to become prosperous, influential, and effective in helping people to succeed. Some may get the impression that Booker T. Washington is bragging, but Washington is also trying to inspire African-Americans not to give in to hopelessness, for they too can succeed, if they work hard and are given the right tools (i.e., education, manual skills).
I was interested in some of what Washington said about government. A significant part of the chapter is about the government’s inadequate support for the Tuskegee Institute. I’m not sure if Washington is saying that the government should have helped more, for, in Chapter 6, he says that white society should help to lift up the “less fortunate” races.
Or Washington’s point may be that African-Americans shouldn’t look to the government but should rely on themselves, for, in the chapter on Reconstruction (Chapter 5), he is rather critical of the African-Americans who looked to the government for positions, rather than seeking to create positions for themselves. He also says that African-Americans were relying on the government during the Reconstruction Period, “very much as a child looks to its mother.” Yet, he goes on to say that “Even as a youth, and later in manhood, I had the feeling that it was cruelly wrong in the central government, at the beginning of our freedom, to fail to make some provision for the general education of our people in addition to what the states might do, so that the people would be the better prepared for the duties of citizenship.” So maybe his position was that the government should provide help, but African-Americans shouldn’t count on it doing so, and they should thus practice self-reliance—which (for Washington) was probably better than childlike dependency in the first place.
Washington also talks more about African-American participation in politics. He refers to an African-American who was trying to get Booker to run for office, and the man said that he read no newspapers, but he just looked at how whites voted and voted the opposite way! Booker states: “I am glad to add, however, that at the present time the disposition to vote against the white man merely because he is white is largely disappearing, and the race is learning to vote from principle, for what the voter considers to be for the best interests of both races.” I saw this sort of optimism about African-American political involvement in a previous chapter of Washington’s book. Booker may be trying to convince white society that African-Americans will use suffrage in a responsible manner, so that it will remove restrictions on their voting. I wonder if there came a point when Booker decided not to advocate for African-American suffrage so openly, but rather to focus on battles he believed he could win: training African-Americans for jobs. That was what W.E.B. Du Bois’ criticized about Washington, but, so far in Washington’s book, I see more optimism about the political process—even though there is also skepticism.
I like this 🙂