“Making Their Beds Before They Could Lie on Them”

In Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, I read Chapter 11, “Making Their Beds Before They Could Lie on Them.” In this chapter, I encountered some of the same themes that I’ve noticed in previous chapters—only, in some cases, Booker T. Washington elaborated on those themes a little more in Chapter 11.

Booker talked about the importance of personal hygiene and how he taught it to the students at Tuskegee, a theme that I have encountered in previous chapters.  Another topic is labor unions.  In a prior chapter, Washington bashed “professional labour agitators” because their strikes took workers away from their jobs, depriving them of an income; in Chapter 11, Washington again brings up the topic of employer-employee relations, proposing a solution, based on his own experiences in discussing with students their issues with the school: “When I have read of labour troubles between employers and employees, I have often thought that many strikes and similar disturbances might be avoided if the employers would cultivate the habit of getting nearer to their employees, of consulting and advising with them, and letting them feel that the interests of the two are the same.”  Washington’s comments bring to my mind the slogan of Jesse Owens in the Jesse Owens Story: “If we walk far enough and talk long enough, eventually, we’ll reach an understanding.”  I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesse Owens got this philosophy from Booker T. Washington, whom Owens greatly admired.

Washington praises General Armstrong (who presided over Hampton, which was where Booker went to school) for his kindness even to white Southerners.  Even though General Armstrong had fought the South in the Civil War, and helped freed slaves to receive an education during and after Reconstruction, he did not have any contempt or hostility towards the South.  Booker then says that white people in the South only hurt themselves when they dishonestly deprive African-Americans of suffrage, or when they lynch African-Americans, for those who do such things are only corrupting their own character.  Booker T. Washington may be encouraging white society to help African-Americans, while at the same time encouraging his fellow African-Americans not to allow bitterness to corrupt their own characters.

I’d like to use this opportunity to share what I read about General Samuel C. Armstrong on wikipedia—which I’m not treating as infallible, by any means, but which I’m only using to get some introductory information on who General Armstrong was.  See here.  The article narrates that Armstrong was concerned about the well-being of African-Americans, both during and after the Civil War.  And yet, it depicts some of his attitudes as patronizing.  He felt, for instance, that African-Americans should not participate in politics until they had been civilized through religious and moral development—which he believed would take several generations.

Booker T. Washington absorbed General Armstrong’s commitment to teaching African-Americans the importance and the skills of manual labor.  In Chapter 11, Washington praises Armstrong’s concept of industrial education.  But my impression is that Booker T. Washington does not fully agree with General Armstrong on African-American participation in the political process.  So far, he has not mentioned General Armstrong’s views on this issue, for he has expressed nothing but praise for him.  But Booker T. does champion the right of African-Americans to vote.  While he acknowledges that people of his race misused that right in the past, he believes that the race has evolved to the point where African-Americans can vote for the general welfare of all people in the South, white and African-American.

My impression is that Washington is trying to counter stereotypes that his race is morally inferior.  As he talks about the respect that his students have shown to him, he remarks: “I have heard it stated more than once, both in the North and in the South, that coloured people would not obey and respect each other when one member of the race is placed in a position of authority over others.”  Washington is obviously responding to a snide stereotype.  And I wonder if that underlies several other points that he makes in his book: that African-Americans reached out to Native Americans, whereas whites treat other races shabbily; that the students of Tuskegee spent their holidays helping the less-fortunate; that his students were eager to learn, etc.  Booker T. Washington observes character in his students, and he resents the view among whites that African-Americans are morally inferior, or shiftless.

Booker T. Washington continually encourages African-Americans to contribute to their communities—both whites and African-Americans—in order to make a good impression, and also because it’s the right thing to do.  And he doesn’t think that such hard work will go unrewarded, for he tells a story about white people from Georgia shaking his hand and thanking him for what he’s done for the South, when he was on a train.  Whereas W.E.B. Du Bois seems to struggle to hold on to hope—as he talks about continued discrimination and injustice—Booker T. Washington believes that real progress is being made.  But would Du Bois and Washington agree on what constitutes progress?

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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