Saturday, January 21, 2006

Up From Slavery

Around the time I listened to The Proud Tower, I enjoyed yet another book on tape set during the late 1800s and early 1900s: Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery (c. 1901). And, as I did The Proud Tower, I heartily recommend Up From Slavery. It reveals how a great American character overcame a great American evil.

Born in slavery (hence the title), Booker T. Washington rose to international prominence by dint of his unstinting labor, keen intelligence, and tough compassion. He dedicated himself to improving the lives of not only those who most directly benefited from his educational and charitable works—his fellow former slaves—but the lives of all the South's people. In Washington's view, dark- and light-skinned alike had suffered from slavery's degradation and waste:
I pity from the bottom of my heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery. I have long since ceased to cherish any spirit of bitterness against the Southern white people on account of the enslavement of my race. No one section of our country was wholly responsible for its introduction, and, besides, it was recognized and protected for years by the General Government. Having once got its tentacles fastened on to the economic and social life of the Republic, it was no easy matter for the country to relieve itself of the institution. . . .

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. . . . 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.

As that passages testifies, Washington valued doing useful work and learning useful skills far above mere theorizing. Relatedly, and to the chagrin of activists such as W.E.B. Dubois, Washington thought that self-reliance and self-improvement would do far more to better the conditions of ex-slaves than would political activism. The debate they started continues to echo today.

Having heard something about Washington's general approach to social reform, Up From Slavery did not offer me too many surprises on that front. What it revealed about Washington's ambivalence about organized religion did surprise me, however. Although evidently a Christian, Washington does not come off as an especially partisan one. For example, when relating his appreciation of the Bible—he made a point of reading it each morning—he praises it "not only for the spiritual help which it gives, but on account of it as literature." In religion as elsewhere, Washington evidently valued pragmatism.

He thus had little patience for mere speechifying about religion. During the Reformation period, for instance, Washington openly criticized many of the ministers in his community, arguing that their theological efforts (to use a perhaps too-dignified term) might be better spent in teaching their denominations vocational skills. He likewise criticized the superabundance of preachers that arose among and descended upon his people, suggesting that most were charlatans barely able to read and ill-suited to lead by admonition or, especially, by example.

Granted, the last third of Up From Slavery droops a bit. By that point in his life's story, Washington had evidently won the respect and admiration of the world, and his autobiography becomes more an account of the laurels he received than of the pitched battles he fought. And his prose, no doubt in reflection of the Bible he read each morning, sounds more like an oratory than a conversation. Still, though, I strongly suggest you at least sample Up From Slavery. If nothing else, read the moving account of his first and most important academic exam: cleaning a room at the Hampton Institute. The story captures both Washington's hard-nosed philosophy and his remarkable character.

No comments: