Booker T. Washington was concerned with the economic well being of the black masses and thus devoted all his time, skills, various resources and networks to uplift black people from slavery. He sought to improve the quality of life for the average black person economically, and materially otherwise by whatever means he held at his disposal. In the most notable written work of Washington's career, his book entitled Up From Slavery, Washington discusses this position. The title itself purports to relate how Washington found his way from slavery through his own strength and ingenuity.
This idea is particularly important for understanding Washington's political position. In that he employs conventions of the slave narrative tradition in this work, he seats himself in the context of race leaders and exemplars such as Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Linda Brendt, and others. This observation is significant because white America at this point had come to know black Americans through these narratives. These writings bore the weight of representing the entire race and as a result were inherently political. He paints his narrative as one of personal triumph over his personal condition. The most famous section of his book, "The Atlanta Exposition Address," best lays out Washington's vision and program for black America. In this address he states:
Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.|
In this quotation, Washington defames the idea that Southern blacks must leave the South and their former trades in order to achieve success. He asserts that the "greatest danger" under which black Americans could suffer would come through "overlook[ing] the fact that the masses of us are to live by the production of our hands." In presenting this notion as fact and not merely a possible course of action, Washington does two things.
First, he determines that the state in which the majority of black Americans then found themselves was one of agrarian living. Second, he suggests that there is indeed value to be won in this life without adding anything more than increased diligence. Instead of encouraging blacks to write poetry, he proffers that black Southerners "put brains and skill into the common occupations of life" believing there they will "prosper as [they] learn to dignify and glorify common labour."
His train of thought follows that rather than investing oneself in fields that make no economic guarantees for success like poetry or philosophy, blacks in the South should rather "put brains" or their entire focus on the proven skills they already have and, by those, to live. The significance here lies in that this shows Washington as not only anti-intellectual, but also as breaking from a tradition of black thinkers who saw education and protest as the only avenues to full citizenship.
Rather than to take issue with questions of race equality, the centrality of the right to vote or to reprove white Americans for the great violence toward blacks then sweeping the nation, Washington believed separation first would gain the trust, respect and loyalty of white Southerners. As partners in strengthening America, he likewise encouraged whites to:
[Cast] down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them…you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen.
For an audio clip of a portion of this speech, click here
His emphasis on appearing to be "patient, faithful, law-abiding and unresentful" is the primary medium through which he seeks to perform his idea of blackness. Instead of presenting black America as rowdy and discontent with the nature of their lives with whites, he contests that through their help, black Americans will have cause to act faithfully towards them. From this point, Washington emphasizes the American-ness of black Americans, performing a rendition of their history with white Americans as well as issuing a promise. He continues:
As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.
In this quotation, Washington creates space for mutual understanding by relating this common history and attempts to unify the races with appeals to a common project in America. His rhetoric locates the black American in the American trope of migration and immigration. Consequently, it is natural that he advocates the gradual acceptance of blacks into the American social context because this is the pattern after which each other migrant group had followed.
Washington essentially asserts that as other groups like the Irish and Germans in the 1840-50's had passed through the trying fires of the American national consciousness, so too should blacks through patience and diligence, achieve recognition as citizens over time. As a result of these beliefs, it is no wonder that he asserts to his largely white audience that "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
Washington believed that in order to achieve dignity and self-determination an individual needed to understand that they were valuable as they were. He argued that they did not need to continue seeking out the utopia of freedom in new and foreign concepts, but said to black Americans: "Cast down their bucket where you are," seeing in this approach the potential to develop capital and thus be accepted into American society because one has acquired legitimacy for the conversation.
Even so, one might still argue that he contends for acceptance at the psychological expense of blacks, considering they were not immigrants, but co-creators of America. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, in guaranteeing certain fundamental rights for the American Negro, was founded to recognize their fundamental difference from immigrants. The creation of these acts were testaments to the essential American-ness of blacks and thus warrants follow-up that places this essential humanity and national fellowship as a higher priority. In this light, Washington can be understood as regressionary or concessionary toward whites.
Here is where people's critique on him has its foremost substance. One irony is that the same individuals who critique his ideas of prospering the economic well-being of average black people, seeing the reluctance to pursue academic education as compromise and assimilation/accomodationist, see his very radical, direct ideas about not seeking integration with whites as similarly accomodationist. Their critique stems from the fact that these comments are seated in the context of what were seen as regressionary ideas of uplift. From this perspective, there is a good deal of substance to their comments.
Here Washington purports that concerns for the economic well being of individuals must be the grounds from which individuals work in order to reach true emancipation, through conciliation with whites and through diligent work to prove themselves worthy of American citizenship.
Because of his urge toward conciliation with whites and privileging of economic development, his seeming silence concerning the growing waves of political terrorism aimed at black Americans appeared to be acceptance. To the period's stock of black leaders, he seemed content to suffer blacks to second-class citizenship if it meant the economic uplift of the race. To these individuals, the manner in which he weighed his priorities fell on impermissible grounds and him a good deal of power, while these race men such as Carter G. Woodson and Charles W. Anderson loudly protested the growing trend toward political violence in lynching.
During this period, black newspapers, the most prominent being the Chicago Defender, called attention to this violence amassing the numbers of black people lynched throughout the country. While the majority of black America focused on redressing social inequality and collective intimidation, Washington maintained the stalwart position that in order to achieve true liberation for the masses of black people, they must be able to find dignity in their beings first; not through appealing to foreign concepts.
However, one cannot make such statements and effectively seek to dismiss Washington altogether because they have differing views concerning education. His agenda had a focus on the black masses, not the black elites/bourgeois intellectuals. Perhaps, for this reason alone, his agenda met with intense criticism. The protests of such individuals seemingly declare: "How dare you not place your focus on us! We are the most successful black people in America and our lives are the most worthy of emulation. How dare you focus on those negroes and not us??!?" Essentially, it is from this perspective that much of Dubois's critique stems.
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