Up From Slavery : An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington

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I wanted to read this autobiography since 2006. Why? As it happened, I got the chance to read one of its chapters in my senior secondary class. The chapter was titled as, “My Struggle For an Education”. I was impressed by the struggle of this black man for getting an education. When I came in teaching profession, I taught it many times to students and the desire to read the whole book was always with me. At last, I bought it, and now, I own it.

First thing that I want to say that this is an autobiography of a teacher and every teacher who is devoted to his/her work should read it. May be, it is famous for the inspiration to be great for the black men in the USA and the world, but it basically shows the devotion of a teacher to eradicate the ignorance and illiteracy; though, the school that he established was mainly for the black but the poor whites  also were his students.

A boy, born as a slave among slaves at a plantation sight in Franklin County, Virginia, in 1858 or 1859 as far as he could remember; lived and grew up there in a log cabin of fourteen by sixteen feet square till the end of Civil War in 1865; after the Civil War, though, everyone was free, no one was slave and no one was master, but the employment crisis prevailed there in the plantation sites.

As his father had abandoned the family very soon after his birth and there was only his mother and elder brother in the family; mother wasn’t in healthful condition to work in a salt or coal mine, and thus, in order to procure enough to feed themselves, they both had to work in mines since their childhood.

One day while working in the coal mine, he heard two laborers talking about a school for the black somewhere in Virginia. At once, he decided to go to that school without caring how he would reach there. Somehow he got there, took admission, worked to pay the fee and by his dedication and sincerity, he became the favorite student of the institute’s best teacher General Samuel C. Armstrong. Booker mentions General Armstrong as his inspiration.

The name of the institute was Hampton Normal Agriculture Institute; and there, he worked, studied, got the degree and experience and made himself worthy to serve others. Because the institute was not only for academic education but also for physical labor, He says, “ At Hampton I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labor, but learned to love labor, not alone for its financial value, but for labor’s own sake and for the independence and self-reliance…” This was the spirit that led him to establish the great Tuskgee Institute and established him as a world famous teacher and educator. t Situations were also demanding for such activities.

Recalling the period of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1878, in the South, he describes- the ambition to secure an education was the most praiseworthy and encouraging…in every part of the South, schools , both day and night were filled to overflowing with people of all ages and condition, some being as far along as sixty and seventy years old…the reason was that everyone wanted to hold office – that was the temptation. May be, it was also a political trick of the North to punish the whites of the South who cooperated with the blacks in the Civil War. This passion for learning then was only for Greek and Latin, while Booker thought that it was of no use for a black man who is unable to feed him and his children, so, he emphasized on the training of, “Hand, Head and Heart”.

Soon, he got the chance to educate young Native-Americans in Hampton and he accomplished it with great patience. General Armstrong gave him another project – there was a proposal to establish a normal school for African-American in Tuskgee, Alabama and Gen Armstrong recommended Booker for this responsibility.

In 1881, Booker went there and found that it was a town consisting 2000 people almost, mostly Blacks. It was also regarded as the ‘Black Belt’ of the South – first for its Black soil and, second, for its colored population. Situations were not favorable to run a school there, it was very hard to find an open place, starting from a Stable and Hen-house –  just imagine what patience and hard work he had to go through to establish a multi-storey building for the school premises.

Tuskgee was a backward area and people there were mainly dependent for their living on Agriculture, so Booker devised such methods of educating them that benefitted him in the field with more production, and, in the mind, with more peace. All the basic skills to live peacefully were taught there. Tt was no shame to labor for a brick-kiln or sweeping the room for any student. The whole building of Tuskgee was made by its own students – an epitome of self-dependency.

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There he met a co-teacher named Olivia A. Davidson who later became his wife, after the death of his first wife Fannie N. Smith. Apart from education and inspection, Booker had also to travel for raising money, as there was a great pressure on him for his school and students to succeed, for failure would reflect poorly on the ability of the Black race and this gave him the chance to introduce himself and to be introduced from the outer world, and he was quite surprised when many people admitted that they knew him on account of his great work in Tuskgee.

Later, Booker got chances to speak of his work and ideas on many platforms; the first chance was at National Education Association where he spoke about the friendly relation of both the races; the next ground-breaking address was the Atlanta Exposition Address where he was invited as the representative of the Negro race. The full speech is printed in the book, I just want to quote a few lines of that address which seem important-

“No race can prosper till it learns there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social justice is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercises of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in factory now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house. ”

The Atlanta Exposition Address gave him place in newspapers’ headlines and editorials and he became famous as a great public-speaker and as the representative of his race.

 In 1893, he got the chance to travel Europe with his third wife Miss Margaret James Murray; there he gave some addresses too and met some prominent people like Queen Victoria and Susan B. Anthony, he also met one of his friends Henry Tanner, an African-American artist.

He had now everything that an honest and devoted teacher can think of – full recognition of his efforts, great fame, receiving an honorary degree from Howard University – the first awarded to an African-American; and another great honor for Booker was the visit of President William McKinley to the Tuskgee institute, an act which the President hoped to impress upon citizens his, “interest and faith in the race”. Booker ends his autobiography describing the then situation of Tuskgee and his daily routine.

This was nice book, indeed, written in an easy language and simple style. This book, however, was a best-seller and remained the most popular African-American autobiography until that of Malcom X. In 1998, the Modern Library listed the book on No.3 on its list of 100 best nonfiction of the 20th century and in 1999; it was also listed by the conservative Intercollegiate Review as the ‘50 best books of the 20th century’. (source- Wikipedia)

Some critics call Booker T. Washington as the ‘accommodationist’ in the then situations which demanded a more provocative approach. In the decades of 1880s and 1890s, the majority of the whites, especially of the North  thought that African-American men can’t survive without the institution of slavery, a belief of, “black criminality and moral decline” was all-pervading. When Booker started writing and public-speaking, his first goal was to challenge this stereotype beliefs and to assert about a possibility of improvement. In those situations, when mob violence could easily be provoked in the black belt, it wasn’t mindful to apply a provocative approach. He was of the view to relax the tension not to exacerbate – it wasn’t sheepish but a genuine practical approach.

April 1, 1901, The Washington Post describes Up From Slavery quite plainly: [Mr. Washington’s] book is full of practical wisdom and sound common sense. It may be read by the Black and White with profit alike. (source-Wikipedia)

~Ravi

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