History: Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery”

Booker T. Washington’s autobiography “Up from Slavery” is the classic look at post-slavery, post-Civil War America that is both instructive, surprising, and insightful for our modern society. Washington was a young boy when he received his freedom after the war, and he had the insatiable desire for learning. He would let nothing stop him, no matter the distance he had to travel, no matter the work he had to do, no matter the task that needed to be accomplished. He was a learner in every possible sense, setting aside any animosity that he might have had for the people and system which once oppressed his own people in the cruelest of ways. His story is one that still needs to be told. I require several chapters of it in my US History class, and I wish others would too. Here’s a quite remarkable excerpt from chapter 1, which expresses how slavery affected everyone, not just the slaves. In a day and age when labor and hard work seem to be devalued, this excerpt is very instructive.

“Ever since I have been old enough to think for myself, I have entertained the idea that, notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did. The hurtful influences of the institution were not by any means confined to the Negro. This was fully illustrated by the life upon our own plantation. The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority. Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape. The slave system on our place, in a large measure, took the spirit of self-reliance and self-help out of the white people. My old master had many boys and girls, but not one, so far as I know, ever mastered a single trade or special line of productive industry. The girls were not taught to cook, sew, or to take care of the house. All of this was left to the slaves. The slaves, of course, had little personal interest in the life of the plantation, and their ignorance prevented them from learning how to do things in the most improved and thorough manner. As a result of the system, fences were out of repair, gates were hanging half off the hinges, doors creaked, window-panes were out, plastering had fallen but was not replaced, weeds grew in the yard. As a rule, there was food for whites and blacks, but inside the house, and on the dining room table, there was wanting that delicacy and refinement of touch and finish which can make a home the most convenient, comfortable, and attractive place in the world. Withal there was a waste of food and other materials which was sad. When freedom came, the slaves were almost as well fitted to begin life anew as the master, except in the matter of book-learning and ownership of property. The slave owner and his sons had mastered no special industry. They unconsciously had imbibed the feeling that manual labour was not the proper thing for them. On the other hand, the slaves, in many cases, had mastered some handicraft, and none were ashamed, and few unwilling, to labour.”

 

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