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.

Rights, The Declaration of Independence, & the Louisiana School System

In this fascinating article by Tom Lindsey Is the Declaration of Independence Based on a Lie which I’ve started using in my history and government class, Lindsey brings up a rejected bill in the Louisiana State Assembly which would have required school students to recite a portion of the Declaration of Independence before school. Representative Norton, who opposed the bill, stated that the D of I was written during the time of slavery so principles such as “…all men are created equal…” was a lie and we shouldn’t make children recite such nonsense which wasn’t true since slavery was still legalized.

Lindsey does a fabulous job in illustrating why Norton’s view is sheer nonsense. Three of his critiques rest on the shoulders of some famous Americans who spoke specifically about this issue. Here’s what they said:

Martin Luther King Jr.: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Abraham Lincoln: “[The founders] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated. . . .”

Frederick Douglas, in his critique of the Dred Scott case and the embarrassing opinion of then Chief Justice Roger Taney, said that slaves indeed were meant to benefit from the Declaration’s claim.

So the question must be asked? Who would you rather trust on the matter: Representative Norton from Louisiana or Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln?

Wow, that’s a close call. Let me think about this for a minute.

The Declaration of Independence set up a standard, a goal which the young country was striving towards; a belief that was embedded within the philosophy of the day.

Who you ask?

These former Englishmen who set out to break away from King George did so with the words and influence of a famous English philosopher ringing in their ears: John Locke.

Locke, who especially influenced Thomas Jefferson, the writer of (most of) the Declaration of Independence, spoke of Nature’s Law. The rights of humans is not bestowed on humanity by a bureaucratic government or a benevolent king. No, rights come from Nature and from God. They are not something that can be given out by attaching it to a bill and passing it in Congress. We have rights because we are human, like we have breath, given to us by our Creator, bestowed upon our nature because of who we are – human.

And while unrighteous governments can take rights away, can enslave an entire race, can segregate and separate and pick and choose as long as it has the might to do so, government can NOT alienate us from our rights. Thus the saying: “we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights …”

Each and every slave had rights given to them by God. Taken away from them by man.

This is the beauty of the Declaration of Independence. It celebrates humanity in such a powerful way, even amidst a world which was at that time (or at this time) anything but perfect.

But the ideal, the precedent, the goal to strive for was forever enshrined within our founding documents. That is, indeed, something to be celebrated. It’s something to be memorized. It’s something to be recited in our classrooms.

I hope Representative Norton will look again at our imperfect past and see the struggle we’ve all been working towards has been there right from the beginning. School kids need to know this.


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.”


Know Your History: What the Emancipation Proclamation Really Did

It freed the slaves.

Not really.

What’s the deal? Let’s break it down a little so we can understand exactly why Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a master stroke of genius – even if it didn’t free one slave!

It was late summer in 1962 and the war between the Union and Confederacy was not going particularly well for the North. Lincoln was desperate for a victory and even more desperate to build some momentum which might help this terrible conflict to come to a close.

The idea of issuing an emancipation for the slaves was something he greatly wanted to do, but it couldn’t be seen as a desperate plea. He needed a victory to back it up.

The Battle of Antietam ultimately gave him that chance, not because it was a huge route for the Union – far from it. It was, at best, a draw, a very bloody one, which cost a lot of lives. It did, however, drive Lee’s forces back further south. If the Union had been led by a general slightly more interested in progress than indecisive General McClellan, Antietam might have been the huge victory that Lincoln wanted. But McClellan, even though he had 7000 more troops than General Lee, allowed Lee’s army to retreat into Virginia without being pursued.

In Washington, the Union chief was desperate, and the news of Lee heading south was enough of a victory to make Lincoln want to exploit it to maximum effect. On September 22, just days after Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. The proclamation would come into effect on January 1, 1863.

So it did free the slaves?

Not exactly. It freed the slaves in all the territories currently held by the Confederacy. Therefore, no slave was technically free. However, it did serve as a huge boost to the Union side. It put, in unequivocal terms, that the war was indeed about slavery and that if the Union won, slavery would be finished. It boosted the morale of many fighting units, and it gave un-told hope to the many southern  fragmented communities of slaves who heard about the emancipation through the grape-vine. If the Union captured territory in the south, slaves from those regions would be forever free.

By the time the war ended, the 13th Amendment  was quickly passed, officially outlawing slavery and ending a horrible period of time for citizens of African descent. It also ushered in another 100 years of struggle for true equality, but that is for another day.

The Best Spielberg Movie you may never have heard of.

Shortlisted are the movies which I actually enjoy seeing more than once. I’ve become such a crab around movies that my family sometimes doesn’t like to go to the cinema with me. Maybe it’s just me, but if a production house is spending tens of millions of dollars to produce a piece of entertainment, why not put a plausible, gripping story with it.

Enough complaining about Hollywood because I actually want to highlight one of my favorite movies which I have watched many times and never seem to tire of it. It even brings me to tears every time I watch it if I was man enough to admit it. It’s the Steven Spielberg 1997 movie “Amistad”. How it did not win an Oscar for best picture I do not know.

“Amistad” tells the real-life story of a group of African slaves who in 1839 leave Cuba on the boat Amistad, only to overthrow the crew in a bloody insurrection and end up in court in Connecticut for murder and rebellion.

The seemingly small matter takes on great significance during the re-election campaign of Martin Van Buren when southern political pressure makes it obvious that they do not want the Africans to go free. The stakes are high for everyone, but none more so for the Africans themselves, seeing how they were not slaves to begin with and were illegally captured from their African homes and brought to Cuba by Spanish slave ship.

Matthew McConnaughay plays the Africans’ attorney, Roger Baldwin, and Morgan Freeman plays Henry Joadson, the freed abolitionist who tries to recruit former president John Quincy Adams (the amazing Anthony Hopkins) to help try the case when it reaches the Supreme Court.

The courtroom drama is riveting, the acting is mesmerizing, Spielberg’s vision of America in 1839 is gripping. But at the heart, this is a touching story about people wanting what everyone does: their freedom.

If you haven’t seen “Amistad” don’t wait any longer.