We Need More Booker T. Washington

As a history teacher, I made sure to excerpts from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” into the curriculum. It is of course a fascinating and enlightening study of one boy’s rise out of slavery to become one of the foremost scholars and respected leaders in American history. Now his views did not come about without criticism. One must read W.E.B. Du Bois and his criticisms of Washington to get a well-rounded view that the black community of the turn of the 20th century was not a monolithic one. But nonetheless, Washington’s insight is unique and even timely in this day and age. Here is a public domain excerpt of chapter 6 of his autobiography. It’s a fascinating view of how blacks and native Americans mixed shortly after the end of the Civil War. Thoughts?

from chapter 6 “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington:

On going to Hampton, I took up my residence in a building with about seventy-five Indian youths. I was the only person in the building who was not a member of their race. At first I had a good deal of doubt about my ability to succeed. I knew that the average Indian felt himself above the white man, and, of course, he felt himself far above the Negro, largely on account of the fact of the Negro having submitted to slavery – a thing which the Indian would never do. The Indians, in the Indian Territory, owned a large number of slaves during the days of slavery. Aside from this, there was a general feeling that the attempt to educate and civilize the red men at Hampton would be a failure. All this made me proceed very cautiously, for I felt keenly the great responsibility. But I was determined to succeed. It was not long before I had the complete confidence of the Indians, and not only this, but I think I am safe in saying that I had their love and respect. I found that they were about like any other human beings; that they responded to kind treatment and resented ill-treatment. They were continually planning to do something that would add to my happiness and comfort. The things that they disliked most, I think, were to have their long hair cut, to give up wearing their blankets, and to cease smoking; but no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.

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