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Up From Slavery ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century

    Of my ancestry I know almost nothing. In the slave quarters, and even later, I heard
    whispered conversations among the coloured people of the tortures which the slaves,
    including, no doubt, my ancestors on my mother's side, suffered in the middle passage
    of the slave ship while being conveyed from Africa to America. I have been unsuccessful
    in securing any information that would throw any accurate light upon the history of my
    family beyond my mother. She, I remember, had a half-brother and a half-sister. In the days
    of slavery not very much attention was given to family history and family records - that is,
    black family records. My mother, I suppose, attracted the attention of a purchaser who was
    afterward my owner and hers. Her addition to the slave family attracted about as much
    attention as the purchase of a new horse or cow. Of my father I know even less than of my
    mother. I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man
    who lived on one of the near-by plantations. Whoever he was, I never heard of his taking the least
    interest in me or providing in any way for my rearing. But I do not find especial fault with him.
    He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had
    engrafted upon it at that time.
        -Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery

One would like to think that it is impossible to read the above paragraph without being ashamed of White America.  Booker T. Washington was a man of such expansive good will and generous spirit, that he could write, on the one hand, about his mother being purchased like a barnyard animal and, on the other hand, could forgive the purchaser as one of slavery's victims too.  This great man rose from a slave childhood to become one of the nation's leading educators and the recognized spokesman for his race at the turn of the Century.  Up From Slavery, which along with Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and Henry Adam's Education makes up the great triumvirate of American autobiographies,  tells his story and provides his vision of America's racial future, a future that was tragically and inexcusably deferred for 60 years.

Washington pulls no punches in describing his life as a slave:

    I was asked not long ago to tell something about the sports and pastimes that I engaged in
    during my youth. Until that question was asked it had never occurred to me that there was no
    period of my life that was devoted to play. From the time that I can remember anything, almost
    every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labour; though I think I would now be a
    more useful man if I had had time for sports.

    I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I
    went as  far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books.
    The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep
    impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way
    would be about the same as getting into paradise.

    I cannot remember a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire
    family sat down to the table together, and God's blessing was asked, and the family ate a meal in a
    civilized manner. On the plantation in Virginia, and even later, meals were gotten by the children
    very much as dumb animals get theirs. It was a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there. It
    was a cup of milk at one time and some potatoes at another. Sometimes a portion of our family
    would eat out of the skillet or pot, while some one else would eat from  a tin plate held on the knees,
    and often using nothing but the hands with which to hold the food. When I had grown to sufficient
    size, I was required to go to the "big house" at meal-times to fan the flies from the table by means
    of a large set of paper fans operated by a pulley.

    The first pair of shoes that I recall wearing were wooden ones. They had rough leather on the
    top, but the bottoms, which were about an inch thick, were of wood. When I walked they made a
    fearful noise, and besides this they were very inconvenient since there was no yielding to the natural
    pressure of the foot. In wearing them one presented an exceedingly awkward appearance. The most
    trying ordeal that I was forced to endure as a slave boy, however, was the wearing of a flax shirt.
    In the portion of Virginia where I lived it was common to use flax as part of the clothing for the
    slaves. That part of the flax from which our clothing was made was largely the refuse, which of
    course was the cheapest and roughest part. I can scarcely imagine any torture, except, perhaps, the
    pulling of a tooth, that is equal to that caused by putting on a new flax shirt for the first time. It is
    almost equal to the feeling that one would experience if he had a dozen or more chestnut burrs, or a
    hundred small pin-points, in contact with his flesh. Even to this day I can recall accurately the
    tortures that I underwent when putting on one of these garments. The fact that my flesh was soft
    and tender added to the pain. But I had no choice. I had to wear the flax shirt or none; and had it
    been left to me to choose, I should have chosen to wear no covering.

This litany of degradations is truly chilling and should serve to silence the fools who pretend that slavery was by and large a benevolent system.  But even after recounting these hardships Washington tells us:

    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. Then, when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face,
    we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million
    Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of
    American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally,
    and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe.
    This is so to such an extent that Negroes in this country, who themselves or whose forefathers
    went through the school of slavery, are constantly returning to Africa as missionaries to enlighten
    those who remained in the fatherland.  This I say, not to justify slavery - on the other hand, I
    condemn it as an institution, as we all know that in America it was established for selfish and
    financial reasons, and not from a missionary motive - but to call attention to a fact, and to show
    how Providence so often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose. When persons ask me
    in these days how, in the midst of what sometimes seem hopelessly discouraging conditions, I can
    have such faith in the future of my race in this country, I remind them of the wilderness through
    which and out of which, a good Providence has already led us.

Washington envisioned a future for Black America wherein their hard work would earn them the respect of whites and pave the way for equality between the races.  His Atlanta Compromise Address, delivered before the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, called for an unwritten pact between the races.  Blacks would remain separate and abjure political power, while whites would encourage educational and economic opportunity for blacks.  He was certain that, given a chance, blacks would earn full rights as citizens from a willing white populous.  Unfortunately Washington's optimism and greatness of spirit were about to be repaid with a viscious period of repression (see C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow).  The possibilities that Washington saw glimmering on the horizon were much further away than he could possibly have realized, as America descended into a soul stifling period of racial segregation and animus that would last until the 1960's.

Washington's reputation has suffered as a result of several factors.  First, is the tragic historical coincidence that he was speaking at the very time that external events were conspiring to bring down the iron curtain of Jim Crow after a period of relative racial harmony (see Woodward).  Second, is the manner in which his views were later misrepresented.  He was easily caricatured as an Uncle Tom or a self-loathing collaborator with the white oppressors.  But the man who wrote the following:

    From any point of view, I had rather be what I am, a member of the Negro race, than be able
    to claim membership with the most favoured of any other race. I have always been made sad when
    I have heard members of any race claiming rights and privileges, or certain badges of distinction, on
    the ground simply that they were members of this or that race, regardless of their own individual
    worth or attainments. I have been made to feel sad for such persons because I am conscious of the
    fact that mere connection with what is known as a race will not permanently carry an individual
    forward unless he has individual worth, and mere connection with what is regarded as an inferior
    race will not finally hold an individual back if he possesses intrinsic, individual merit. Every
    persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is
    universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is, in the long run, recognized
    and rewarded. This I have said here, not to call attention to myself as an individual, but to the race
    to which I am proud to belong.

must be said to have been proud of his race and proud of humankind.  The fact that his vision exceeded that of the rest of his country men should not be reason to judge him harshly.  Rather, his fellow Americans should be judged harshly and he should be celebrated as a great American visionary in the spirit of Jefferson and Lincoln and the Roosevelts and Reagan.


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