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.

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.”


Art History Article Abstract: Art and Race in Romare Bearden’s “Projections”

A little art and academia today:

Glazer, Lee Stephens.  “Signifying Identity: Art and Race in Romare Bearden’s Projections.”   Art Bulletin 76.3 (September 1994): 411-26.

Lee Stephens Glazer shows how in the 1964 exhibition of images entitled Projections, Romare Bearden builds on familiar images from art history in order to show an African-American culture that is a vibrant and legitimate part of American life.  Glazer points to African American writers, Booker T. Washington being one, who mastered the discourse of white society to show the economic and intellectual achievements of blacks.  This led to the 1920s and 30s when other black artists and critics sought to distance themselves from “Uncle Tom” stereotypes by revising the African-American image of the past.  Glazer shows how Bearden, taking his cue from Malmaux’s idea of ‘art through art’, sought to establish through his art montages an African-American culture uniquely rich in experience and structure.  Glazer’s semiotic treatment of Bearden’s work shows how his pieces of art – and thus African American culture – have its origins in prior discourse, meaning that his art is not merely one isolated piece of modern culture but is indeed wrapped in historical trappings becoming part of a much larger piece of historical discourse.  One example cited by Glazer is Bearden’s Three Folk Musicians which is a slight tip of the cap to Picaso’s Three Musicians. But what Bearden accomplishes by playing off the back of art history is to acknowledge that African Americans have space and structure comparable to anyone else. The Three Folk Musicians becomes a metaphor for one aspect of African-American life.  Bearden and his Projections did not define the African American community in terms of what it lacked as Glazer claims the media in the 60s tended to do.   It defined it on terms of its own identify built on the back of their historical struggle.  As Glazer points out, Bearden confronts history by imitating it then mastering it. Thus his “artistic style renounces its connection to a unique object or individual point of view.” It identifies its relationship with other historical and artistic signifiers just like African-American culture is one piece of a fabric woven together by varied strings of the past.