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Up From Slavery [Book Review]


Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, is an autobiography that covers his experience as a child born into slavery, his struggle to obtain an education, and his time spent helping to establish what would become Tuskegee University.


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Up From Slavery starts with Booker T. Washington describing the environment in which he grew up. The cabin where he lived as a child, sounds like a shack. But he doesn’t think his owners were bad people despite them not caring or being oblivious to the living conditions of his family. He relates a story of his family being so poor where his mom stole or took the slave owner’s chickens to feed her children because it was the only meat that she could obtain.

Even as a small child, he had no play days and instead was made to work. There’s no denying that Booker T. Washington had a rough start in life. Unfortunately, this makes some people hard. Instead of sympathizing with those who come after and trying to help them along, they feel it’s required that they must struggle too. It’s like the misguided concept of the beautiful struggle where people come to believe they have to struggle in life for it to have meaning.

In his childhood, the closest Washington came to going to school was carrying the books of the slave owner’s daughter. He came to think that being able to attend school was a great privilege and something to yearn for. Washington’s childhood was filled with work and a lack of things made him yearn for and desire all the good things and luxuries that his owner’s family had.

Yet, he goes out of his way to clarify that slaves did not wish ill on their owners who were off fighting the war and lamented their deaths and injuries. He goes into detail, providing examples where he states that only slaves who were mistreated, and they were the minority in his opinion, had ill feelings towards slave owners. The circumstances of his childhood sound like a laundry list of deprivement, but somehow he doesn’t regard it as mistreatment. He speaks about the hardships that White people face following the end of the war. Some of them became poor because they lost their slaves and likely couldn’t afford to now pay for the labor needed to keep their homes, farms, plantations, or other businesses running.

I don’t think Up From Slavery was written for Black people to be quite honest. Instead, it reads like a PR pamphlet to appeal to White people and ease their fears of Black people being mad or harboring resentment about slavery. I noticed this quite early in the book. On the one hand, it sounds like Booker T. Washington was brainwashed. But he wasn’t a stupid man and I feel like his questionable statements and actions throughout the book were a complex form of respectability politics. I legitimately wondered if he truly believed and internalized the self-hatred and nonsense that he uttered, or if he felt differently in private moments with himself and just his conscience.

I don’t believe that the proper response to someone hating you is you in turn hating them because it takes energy. And that negative energy isn’t good for you to carry around. But I also don’t believe that you are required to love people who hate you or lend assistance to people who would just as quickly take or begrudge what little you have. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. And I believe that it’s not in your best interest to devote positive or negative energy to people who are a hindrance to you. So I understand the idea that emancipated slaves were not consumed with hatred of the people that formerly owned them. They had more important things to worry about. They had more important things to attend to and former masters would not be worth their time or energy. I don’t know how true it is, but Booker T. Washington’s assertion that slaves looked after and helped to support their former owners following the war is problematic, or at least the way he describes it.

Washington implies that slaves have not only forgiven but also forgotten, which I think is misleading. The expectation is certainly still alive and well as many people, both Black and White would prefer to simply move on and move past slavery though it has never truly been discussed or worked out. And we’re still dealing with the ramifications of it today. The institution and in its aftermath continue to have an economic, social health, etc, impact on Black people and the wider society. Here in the book, Black people are tasked with doing the heavy work of forgiving, but there’s no discussion of former slave owners contributing to the healing by repenting or otherwise making amends.

This reminds me of events, such as the Charleston church shooting, the brother of Botham Jean who was killed in his apartment by a police officer who kicked in his apartment door, to Black people being released from prison after serving years due to wrongful convictions. Inevitably, and way too quickly the question is asked of the victim or their loved ones of forgiving the person or persons who did them wrong. Rarely is the wrongdoer asked what they plan to do to make things right.

To prove that Black people are honorable Washington shares an example of a former slave, making a great effort to pay off the balance for purchasing himself from his former master after emancipation. But a person has no right to own another person so the slave shouldn’t have had to pay for himself. He owed the slave owner, nothing. Washington explains that he bears no ill will to former slave owners. He doesn’t blame the South for the horrors of slavery because it was widespread and backed by the government. He excused people holding on to slavery because it had become so ingrained in society and the economy. And believes that when America rids itself of racism, Black people in America will find themselves in better circumstances than Black people elsewhere in the world.

He points to Black Americans going to Africa as missionaries to enlighten the people of the continent. He doesn’t think it justifies slavery, but can be looked at as God working through the formerly enslaved. Taking them through turbulent times to deliver them to “Providence”. He has faith that despite trying times, going through slavery has improved conditions for Black people compared to where they’ve come from.

This is an argument that many racists used to justify the enslavement of Black people and downplay the impact of slavery. The institution is viewed as a positive for Black people, as it delivered them from Africa. It’s a variation of the concept of the White man’s burden. But I was shocked to learn that a Black man was voicing these opinions.

Washington believes the slaves benefited from slavery because they learned skills and how to work hard, which prepared them for labor after emancipation. Slave owners, on the other hand, had grown idle and learned no skills as they had slaves to do manual labor for them. This then made them unfit for life after slavery. I felt this was incredibly naive. Washington recognizes that after slavery Black people were starting over with the ability to work, but little education or property. Meanwhile, former slave owners looked down on manual labor and might not have been willing to do hard work themselves. But they had a huge head start in the form of education, property, and money, or at least property and money.

Seriously, I felt this guy was either a study in delusions or an absolute master of spin. The idea that slave owners were upset at the time of emancipation because of the loss of the people who raised and were close to them rather than the loss of valuable property and free labor, boggled my mind. I am curious to know how people felt about the book at the time of its release. I would love to see reviews from the time that this book came out.

Washington notes that the newly freed slaves were jubilant for a brief moment until it sunk in that they were now fully responsible for themselves. That makes sense to a degree. But then he goes on to state that the White race had faced this responsibility for centuries as though it was an entirely new reality for the entire Black race. This completely ignores the fact that Black people had been living in Africa long before they were captured and brought to America. They had been providing for themselves and surviving for a long time before they came to America.

Yet Washington regards emancipation, seemingly from the perspective that the enslaved had been relieved of the burden of responsibility for their survival. There’s quite a bit of spin here because Black people were not naturally incapable of taking care of themselves and their families. Rather a major part of enslaving Black people was also keeping them uneducated and ignorant. This persisted after emancipation, not as some means of concern for Black people. But as a means of maintaining White supremacy and control over Black people. It helped to ensure a large pool of free and/or low-cost labor.

There are examples of older slaves being afraid to strike out on their own. As in their old age, they would have had limited options for providing for themselves without the help of others. This isn’t very far fetched as America eventually began to provide resources and financial support for the elderly.

I’ve always admired the history of Black people clamoring for the opportunity to get an education, get married, and do other everyday things that we now sometimes take for granted. Having been denied these basic things they recognized the importance of having them. I might not agree with all of Washington’s ideas, but sometimes he said things that I found myself nodding along to. I agree with the example that his mother set by making things for him, instead of buying things on credit that she could not afford. But then he went on to be a little bit messy by explaining that some of the kids who came from families that could afford things his family could not when he was a child are now poor or in prison.

I went back and forth with my feelings about Washington because he’s not oblivious to the realities of the harsh circumstances faced by Black people at this time. He fully recognizes them, but then turns around and makes statements that seem out of touch with reality. He states that as a Black boy growing up, he faced many hardships and envied and wanted to be a White boy so he wouldn’t have to deal with as many obstacles. He recognizes that a Black child would have to work far harder than a White child to be successful. The world is seemingly open to a White boy and no ambition is considered too great for him. While people have low expectations for Black boys and thus attempt to limit the possibilities for them before they even get started in life.

At points, Washington relates stories of mistreatment against himself or Black people in general that are upsetting. But then immediately states that he or other Black people felt no ill will at the injustice. It comes across as a case of thou doth protest, too much. Where in making a show of an obvious wrong and stressing how not angry or hurt he or the person in the story was it seems all the more likely that they were probably deeply affected. It robs him and the people he’s talking about of their humanity.

It was quite interesting when the book progressed and Washington began speaking about how he obtained his education. I knew that he had attended Hampton, but the story of how he traveled there and worked to be admitted was eye-opening. And honestly, I give him props for his efforts.

He views the time Black people spent living in Africa negatively as though somehow on par with being enslaved in America. And also at this time, people were suffering grave workplace injustices. Yet he’s seemingly anti-union and also against strikes. It’s like nobody should stand up for themselves and fight for their rights.

Something to keep in mind is that this large group of formerly enslaved people had been turned loose with no plan for easing them into or preparing them for a life of freedom. They’re new to having money and need to learn how to manage it. Yet, he disparages them for relishing the little luxuries that they purchase or the little things that they decorate their homes with.

I can’t understand why young women would struggle and sacrifice to go through years of school only to end up with the same jobs as their parents. Washington states that through attending school they’ve been exposed to more and now have increased desires for things, but no additional work options for obtaining them. The problem then is not them wanting a better life or more things. But rather that even after getting an education, they still have limited options for improving their quality of life.

People sacrifice and send their children to school so they can get an education and have better job options so they won’t have to struggle. It’s how many of the early settlers and founding fathers ended up at what would become the Ivy League schools. He recognizes work is open to White children and limitations aren’t placed on their options for life. Yet, he makes countless arguments and excuses for why Black children should be held back and penned into manual labor.

It’s understandable that parents who were slaves and now working to support themselves doing the same kind of work they did as slaves would want different for their children. Farming or doing laundry, especially at that time was hard work, and having done it for a lifetime most wouldn’t want the same for their children. Or would at least want things to be a little easier for them. If manual labor was so rewarding, why didn’t he choose to go back and work in the salt furnaces or coal mines of his youth after studying at Hampton?

Politics is the undercurrent that runs America. It has a tremendous impact on everyday life, including education, industry, and property ownership. Believing that Black people should strive to obtain those three things but ignore politics is like building a house on someone else’s foundation. With shifting tides and no control, you will forever be at someone else’s mercy and forced to live under their rules.

Washington buys into the concept of ranks among races and classes as well. He speaks of merit and hard work, being determining factors of success, value, and esteem. But then makes comments that show he does rank and qualify people based on their perceived station in life. For example, he disparages Black families putting most of their efforts into planting cotton rather than devoting some land to kitchen gardens and said they spent money buying fat pork and cornbread from stores in town.

He overlooks that this is the food that many slaves survived on, and they might have chosen to plant cotton for sale or trade rather than vegetables for food because they needed to earn money. It’s also not clearly stated if the people Washington visited, owned their land, or were sharecroppers. As sharecroppers, they would have been living and farming on rented land and might have had less control over what they could plant or what they could plant and expect to profit from.

In one breath, he speaks about the merits of manual labor but then speaks negatively about families spending so much time working in the cotton fields. He also details the practice of families eating on the go rather than sitting down for meals at a table. After working all week, it’s understandable that people who have been working hard would want to relax on the weekends. And some chose to do this by spending Saturday in town and Sunday in church meetings.

If many former slaves started their new lives as free people without money or savings and few job prospects. Is it really surprising that some might’ve gone into debt or worked as sharecroppers to get started in their new lives? And he speaks of this as though it’s something endemic to Black people when many farmers, even land rich plantation owners, were often heavily dependent on debt. Men, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc., have been found to have existed on credit and were quite cash poor.

Washington discusses how he made a conscious decision to educate the students at Tuskegee in a manner where many would become teachers. And they would return home to their communities to educate people about advances in agriculture. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, if the students decided to do this on their own. But recognizing the limitations that society places on Black people, Washington decides to reinforce this by in some ways limiting the type of education they could obtain.

He doesn’t want Black people of the South to get an education and move to cities where they’ll then try to make a living by using their wits, which I take to mean their minds. Instead, he romanticizes them remaining in the country and continuing to do the same kind of work they did before the end of slavery, but also sharing their newly found education with the people around them. Farming is hard work, and it’s understandable that given other options, some wouldn’t want to do it anymore. With career options for many after slavery limited to teaching or preaching, it’s not surprising that those are the careers that many pursued.

I side-eyed his mention that at the time of writing Up From Slavery, Tuskegee received warm support from not just the White citizens of Tuskegee, but the rest of the state of Alabama and the South. Compared to stories from other people of the time, this man seemed to live in a completely different universe. Yet it was still interesting to learn about how Tuskegee was developed. We hear so much about the contributions of Booker T. Washington. But I was surprised to learn that a woman who would later become his wife, Olivia Davidson, played a crucial role in helping to establish the school through canvassing the local area and fundraising around the country.

I don’t dispute the idea that some locals eventually came to view Tuskegee as a positive addition to the community and respected the abilities of the students it sent out into the world. But we also have to deal with the reality that at the same time, many racists throughout the South were still clinging to the old ways. Hence in addition to Jim Crow laws, both communities and individuals also put in place other strategies to hold Black people back.

They did not regard Black progress as something to respect and applaud, but rather a threat to society and what they viewed as the natural order of things. So they coveted the success of people they saw as being beneath them and sought to take over businesses and trades that Black people built up. That’s not to say they didn’t want the use of the product or service provided. But rather having grown accustomed to having control over such workers and/or not having to pay fair prices or anything at all for such labor, they pushed back against the changes in circumstances.

To some degree, Washington pushes for students to receive an industrial education or learn a trade to ensure they have a skill that will be valued in most communities. Which makes sense. As the children of former slaves, Black children would have been starting from a disadvantaged position compared to the children of free Black people or White people in general. But even coming from poor families, White children were not discouraged from studying law or medicine or pursuing other trades that didn’t warrant manual labor. They were given choices.

Up From Slavery helps to explain why Washington seemed to be so determined to prove he and Black people held no resentment regarding wrongs committed against them. He explains that he sees holding ill feelings about past wrongs as allowing another person too much control over him and his soul. He makes the argument that a White person mistreating a Black person causes temporary harm to the Black person but permanent damage to their soul because they lower their morals to then also mistreat other White people.

But some people manage to be mean and evil towards one kind of person while treating others humanely. Some people will rob and steal from a stranger but give the shirt off their back to a family member or a friend. The determining factor is whether or not the individual views the other person as someone it’s acceptable to wrong. So the idea that a White person who commits wrongs against a Black person will also be open to committing that same wrong against a White person is flawed.

It takes for granted that there are factors at play that allow for and excuse the mistreatment of Black people while at the same time discouraging the mistreatment of White people. In a society where Black people are viewed as being inferior, it becomes acceptable for them to be mistreated. But if in that same society, White people within similar classes are viewed as equals and having rights protected by the law, it becomes unacceptable for one White person to mistreat another White person. It would be frowned upon for a White person to treat a White person as they might a Black person. Much in the same vein as it was frowned upon for a White person to treat a Black person as an equal.

Washington explains that he’s never been disrespected by White people of the South, despite providing examples of being refused lodging and such by White people in the South. And that he has been greeted warmly and thanked for his work at Tuskegee. I don’t doubt that some White people were grateful for the work he was doing and thanked him personally. But by this time, Reconstruction would have ended and Black people were being terrorized in the South by Jim Crow, threats of violence, and actual lynchings. I visited Tuskegee and took the campus tour during which it was explained that the facades of some buildings were designed to face away from the campus’ main street to downplay their importance when the Klan came riding through. Yet, according to Washington, everything was just peachy.

I understand being a person of your word and only being willing to say in one place, what you would be willing to say anywhere else or in the subject of your conversation’s presence. But if the threat of violence looms in the South for those who speak out against injustices, I would be concerned that a person might hold back completely, regardless of where they’re speaking. The issue with Washington is that not only did he choose to not speak out against Southern injustices while in the North, he also glossed over wrongdoings while in the South. It’s like being a parent and only encouraging your child when they do well while turning a blind eye and not saying anything to correct them when they do wrong.

I accept that you would catch more flies with honey than vinegar and positive reinforcement is often more effective than pointing out faults. But at times it’s necessary to discuss a person’s shortcomings and address their wrongdoings. Glossing over these flaws while only focusing on the good won’t necessarily encourage the person to do better and might give them the idea that their actions are acceptable.

Washington states that he doesn’t believe that Black people should be confined to farming for eternity. But that agriculture should be used as a foundation for future generations to advance and make progress. But if an individual has the drive and an opportunity to pursue higher goals, why should they limit themselves to farming, trades, or other forms of manual labor with the idea of having their descendants pursue the less manual trades? Having spent generations penned in by slavery, why not completely break the shackles and strive to go as far as you can, rather than to where other people think you should stop?

It’s often said that in trying to please everyone you’ll often please no one. In Booker T. Washington’s case, he had three audiences present when he made his speech at what would come to be known as The Atlanta Compromise. Despite giving one speech, he was speaking to Northern Whites, Southern Whites, and Black people. Hard truths would have to be stated to have an honest conversation with the group assembled. Unwilling to do that, Washington made a conscious decision to appeal to the Northern and Southern Whites with the mistaken idea that he was doing the right thing on the behalf of Black people.

What I took from the speech and what seemed to course throughout the book was that following emancipation Black people were aiming too high too soon. He felt that with most Black people coming out of slavery, ignorant and uneducated, they needed to start from the bottom with the basics and move up over time in generations. They were getting ahead of themselves by trying to become involved with politics or seeking to be scholars rather than obtaining practical educations. That instead of moving elsewhere in search of opportunities, they should remain in the South and form friendships with White southerners.

He then called upon White southerners to put their trust in Black southerners as they had a long history of being dutiful servants. The two races could be separate socially but should work together to move forward in all other areas. If according to Washington, White southerners have been so supportive of Black people after emancipation, why would they take issue with them wanting social equality? This is a major issue throughout Up From Slavery. While Washington is speaking about Black people making progress, it’s within the confines of severe limitations. The world wasn’t made for one person to rule alone and no individual or race has the right to rule over any other individual or race of people.

I came away from Up From Slavery with the feeling that Booker T. Washington believed Black people were inferior to White people. Or at least for whatever reason thought it was important to promote this idea. You can’t argue against the fact that he did quite a bit of good in helping to establish and guide the development of Tuskegee. But it was also at a great expense to the mass Black population. The ideologies that he promoted through his work and this book were directly harmful to and supported initiatives that were harmful to the progress of Black people. He extended opportunity with one hand but contributed to attempts to hold Black people back with the other hand.

Reading about historical figures, some anecdotes and opinions get handed down through the generations. I’ll admit that I approached Up From Slavery with preconceived and not necessarily positive notions about Booker T. Washington. And reading the book, I felt he was being a bit dishonest at points, but came away with a better understanding of how his views developed. I’m glad that I read the book and formed my own opinions for myself.

Admittedly, my views of the man didn’t change much as I still disagreed with him on many topics. But I think my views of Washington softened a bit. Rather than dismissively regarding him as a sellout, I see his misguided views and ideas as a result of him being a man in a peculiar position at a very different time from mine. Not that that excuses things.

Whether you agree or disagree with Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery is a book that elicits strong opinions. I think it’s a good practice to seek out different views and opinions with an open mind, just to reassess and challenge your ideas to see if they hold water. I was concerned about reviewing the book because it’s so short, but there’s so much to discuss and debate about the content within its pages. I strongly recommend reading the book, especially if you’re in a book club with people who have different views but are open to hearing other opinions and perspectives.

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