A Reflection on Up From Slavery: Cultural Criticism
Up From Slavery (1900) is one of the most important if not compelling autobiographical narratives in the American literary cannon. Written by another author, at a different time period this narrative might appear, on its surface, more fiction than fact and more “Tom” foolery than the story of the ascendancy of a Negro leader. Given this work was written just shy of post Reconstruction America it propelled Booker T. Washington and the cause of the American Negro into the board rooms and dinner tables of the powerful and wealthy in America. No single work in American history solicited as much admiration, deliberation and causation than Up From Slavery. Given the absence of a single focal point of black leadership and the continual pronouncements of benign neglect from current and past White House Administrations we owe a careful reflection on the work and life of Booker T. Washington.
Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery reads more like a how to manual than the life story about a former slave. There is an exacting mechanical quality that suggests that Washington was working several audiences simultaneously, like a well-oiled machine in order to strengthen his own personal agenda that was clearly in keeping with the aspirations of any other American during the time period. Clearly, Washington’s audience consisted of White Southerners that possessed a suspicion of black aspirations, white Northerners, many of which had very little understanding of black life outside of theatrical or newspaper accounts, and blacks themselves who, Washington viewed as needing a practical program for post slavery economic and social emancipation. Perhaps Washington has surveyed the American landscape and foresaw the coming tide of industrialization and was preparing both whites and blacks for the future.
For those who perceive Washington’s work and his life as a “corrupt bargain” with Southern Whites, miss an opportunity to explore earnestly the workings of a true genius of racial politics in 19th and early 20th century America. Up From Slavery should be viewed as a thinly veiled and subtly crafted literary masterpiece. Washington manages to castigate Southern racism, show the foolishness of chattel slavery, encourage and the same time belittle blacks that seek Greek and Latin over animal husbandry and agricultural science. Yet, Washington does this without the vanity and pretentiousness of the later works such as W.E.B. Dubois’s Souls of Black Folk (1903), which remains the hallmark of black scholarship in America. As an example, Washington recounts the story of an elderly black man who retells his story of him being sold as a slave. The elderly slave when asked how many were sold stated, “There were five of us; myself and brother and three mules.” Washington’s mastery of interjecting “home-spun” tales to make points solidly grounds his work among his people. This simple story also reveals a mastery of Southern racial politics. Washington manages to mock the south and its peculiar institution by employing the device of signification, yet does so by using his own race as a device. But make no mistake about it, this story revels more about the white dominated south than it does about an old slaves confusion with men and mules.
Another aspect of Washington’s work is the almost biblical quality of his writing. This is a work about movement, a journey, a Sphinx rising from the ashes. Washington’s life moves through the American landscape like Moses moved through the desert to his promised land. As Moses educated the Israelites and brought them the religious tenants of God, Washington brings to the American consciousness revelations about the ascendancy of the black race in America.
Another aspect of Up From Slavery is Washington’s unquestioned regard for his own racial identity. While Dubois would later reveal a personal racial awakening, Washington wears his color like a badge of honor. Something, he suggests, to be respected and admired.
Unlike Dubois who descends into the South discovers his black identity, Washington revels his ascendancy and re-affirms his black identity and roots in the run deep into his Slave past. No other credentials to remind his readers of his blackness are required.
Another revealing aspect of Washington’s autobiography is his use of Puritan or log cabin ethic to score points with those who might view suspiciously black aspirations for education. He does this on two parallel planes. First, he brings the reader directly into the cold and chilling confines of his slave cabin. Washington makes considerable mention of his dwelling not in ways that imply degradation but in a way that conveys linkages to the romance of the great log cabin as an enduring symbol of the frontier in American society. Washington describes the slave cabin with all of its degrading subtleties, dirt floors, broken door, and “cat-holes,” as a place of despair but it he does nonetheless state that he was born “in a typical log cabin.” As far as Washington is concerned only skin color separates his life from that of Lincoln or Lob Cabin candidate and president William Henry Harrison is the color of his skin.
Washington devotes considerable amount of pages to explain his program of education, from accompanying his mistress to the schoolhouse to his outspoken criticisms on the proper role of education for the masses of black folk. This is done in part to challenge the need for a more classical style of education and as a thin veil of solicitation for funds for his school. In doing so, Washington not only highlighted the path for black Americans but a road map for American industrialists who were struggling with waves of immigrants who were unaccustomed to the structure of time-clock efficiency in their factories.
Washington writes of his unselfishness between himself and former slaves who do not harbor any bitterness toward Southern whites. As if to suggest that blacks have a spiritual quality transcending earthly notions revenge and hatred. “No other blacks on the globe,” Washington says, “are in a more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally and religiously.” Washington tempers this with the idea that slavery was an evil institution, however, who could have imagined that a people anywhere on the planet could have endured the evils of American slavery. Washington wrote, “I remind them of the wilderness through which out of which, a good providence has already led us.”