In Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, I read chapter 10, “A Harder Task Than Making Bricks Without Straw.”
Three points stood out to me in today’s reading:
1. Washington said that he had the students of Tuskegee build the school’s buildings. Not only did this teach the students skills, but it also engendered in them respect for the buildings. As Washington says, “Not a few times, when a new student has been led into the temptation of marring the looks of some building by leadpencil marks or by the cuts of a jack-knife, I have heard an old student remind him: ‘Don’t do that. That is our building. I helped put it up.’”
This reminds me of arguments for an “ownership society,” or claims by conservative environmentalists that privatizing land will result in a decline in water pollution and deforestation: if businesses own the land, then they’ll treat it better than if they’re using public property. After all, if they own the land, they’ll have to replace the trees that they cut down. And maybe they’ll want to make their property into a park that people would pay to visit. Having a personal stake in something gives one a motivation to treat it better. In the case of Tuskegee, the students had a sense of pride in the contribution that they made to building the school’s buildings.
2. The students also made and sold bricks. Eventually, white people in the South bought them, realizing that Tuskegee students made quality bricks. From this experience, Booker T. Washington learned something about race relations:
“The making of these bricks taught me an important lesson in regard to the relations of the two races in the South. Many white people who had had no contact with the school, and perhaps no sympathy with it, came to us to buy bricks because they found out that ours were good bricks. They discovered that we were supplying a real want in the community. The making of these bricks caused many of the white residents of the neighbourhood to begin to feel that the education of the Negro was not making him worthless, but that in educating our students we were adding something to the wealth and comfort of the community. As the people of the neighbourhood came to us to buy bricks, we got acquainted with them; they traded with us and we with them. Our business interests became intermingled. We had something which they wanted; they had something which we wanted. This, in a large measure, helped to lay the foundation for the pleasant relations that have continued to exist between us and the white people in that section, and which now extend throughout the South.
“Wherever one of our brickmakers has gone in the South, we find that he has something to contribute to the well-being of the community into which he has gone; something that has made the community feel that, in a degree, it is indebted to him, and perhaps, to a certain extent, dependent upon him. In this way pleasant relations between the races have been stimulated.
“My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that it is the visible, the tangible, that goes a long ways in softening prejudices. The actual sight of a first-class house that a Negro has built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house that he ought to build, or perhaps could build.”
That was Booker T. Washington’s view on race relations: that African-Americans should work hard, contribute to the wider community (which includes whites, African-Americans, and others), and earn the respect of whites. In a way, this is the Will Palmer approach—to bring into the discussion Alex Haley’s grandfather, Will Palmer. In Roots: The Next Generation, Will Palmer practically ran the lumberyard because its manager was a drunk, and that earned him the respect of the white establishment, who then gave Will the lumberyard. Will had no intention of appeasing white society, however, for he said that he intended to make the lumberyard a success so that he’d owe the white man nothing!
Some may like Booker T. Washington’s approach, whereas others may view it as too idealistic. Both sides probably have elements of truth, and situations may vary.
3. Washington is still talking about the humble days of Tuskegee. Washington said, “In fact in those earlier years I was constantly embarrassed because people seemed to have more faith in me than I had in myself.” I admire Washington for continuing to try even when he didn’t have much faith in himself. And I appreciate it when people have faith in me, when my faith in myself is lacking. That motivates me.