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Booker T. Washington used his own life and experience as a former slave to write The Story of the Negro. Equal parts sociology, history, cultural critique, and memoir, it is presented in three sections: “The Negro in Africa,” “The Negro as a Slave,” and “The Negro as a Freeman.” In this classic text, Washington describes a “new Negro for a new century,” who stood upon the bulwark of his own economic independence. One hundred years after its initial publication, The Story of the Negro remains ...
Booker T. Washington used his own life and experience as a former slave to write The Story of the Negro. Equal parts sociology, history, cultural critique, and memoir, it is presented in three sections: “The Negro in Africa,” “The Negro as a Slave,” and “The Negro as a Freeman.” In this classic text, Washington describes a “new Negro for a new century,” who stood upon the bulwark of his own economic independence. One hundred years after its initial publication, The Story of the Negro remains instructive as citizens of the world and Americans in particular continue to grapple with persistent questions concerning the nature and importance of “race” and class; the role of African Americans in political, economic, and cultural affairs; and the often blurred boundary between collective history and individual biography or personal memoir.
As if gazing into a mirror, Booker T. Washington used his own life and experience as the template for writing a history of the race in his 1909 The Story of the Negro. Equal parts sociology, history, cultural critique, and memoir, Story is written in the spare and accessible style that became Washington’s trademark. A former slave, Washington kept an eye toward the need former slaves had for a creation narrative to help facilitate their emergence as a free people and he saw The Story of the Negro as that narrative. Washington presented his history in three sections: “The Negro in Africa,” “The Negro as a Slave,” and “The Negro as a Freeman.” He traced the story of a people who created themselves from whole cloth after their kidnapping from what was then perceived as the “dark continent,” survival of the trauma of the middle passage of the transatlantic slave trade, and the crucible of American slavery, all of which he thought provided the basis for their contribution to the creation of a distinctive American culture.
Booker T. Washington’s own life story has become the iconic tale of the slave boy who rose above his circumstances to found Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), the institution of higher learning which the freedmen looked to with great pride and which provided them with a crucial element of their free identity. Tuskegee, created by and for black people, proved that both as individuals and as a race, they could transcend stereotypic as well as the very real limitations imposed upon them at the time. In Up From Slavery, Washington traced the outlines of his prototypically American success story achieved by his unwavering focus, hard work embodying the Protestant work ethic, and ingratiating charm. Born a slave on a Virginia farm in the year 1858 or 1859—his failure to know for sure not only the year of his own birth, but even the day or the season, was also a crucial element of the mysteries surrounding the collective American slave biography.[i] Washington’s mother had been the farm cook, but his father might have been a white man whose true identity remained unknown to him. In fact, Washington said that he knew “almost nothing” about his own ancestry and his curiosity about his origins seems to have also fueled his lifelong interest in uncovering information about the origins of his race.[ii] Published in 1901, Up From Slavery provided not only the detailed story of the life of an individual who transformed his experiences in slavery into remarkable success in freedom, but also the illuminating backdrop of the institution of slavery, the Civil War, race relations, and the gradual accumulation and application of sophisticated political strategies worthy of Macchiavelli. Washington himself referred to The Story of the Negro as a sequel to Up From Slavery, as he continued to fulfill his “increasing desire to ‘know what was back of me, where I came from .’” Thus, Washington’s desire for self-knowledge inspired his quest to unearth knowledge of the race and to write a history that would satisfy both.
Booker T. Washington understood from an early age that the writing of history, and perhaps also self-knowledge, depended upon the acquisition of literacy. While still a small child, he worked as a laborer in a salt mine and it was there that he began a lifelong quest for formal “book knowledge.”[iii] The history of blacks in freedom was in large part a history of this determination to be able to read. Washington, and almost every freed person he describes in Up From Slavery—whether those blacks who read as they plowed or worked all day and demanded night schools so that they could study all night—dedicated themselves to learning and were willing to go to any length to get it. Says Washington,
This experience of a whole race beginning to go to school for the first time, presents one of the most interesting studies that has ever occurred in connection with the development of the race it was a whole race trying to go to school.[iv]
The impression on Washington lasted his whole lifetime. For example, there is unmistakable pride in his assertion that although only between 5 and 10 percent of former slaves could read at emancipation, more than 55 percent of freed people were literate by 1900. Later, while working as a houseboy for General and Viola Ruffner, Washington continued to expand his “book knowledge,” and even later, as a janitor at Hampton Institute, he studied the director, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong’s, ideas about “industrial education” and incorporated some of them in his “Tuskegee idea.”[v] The “idea” was a conservative focus on the Protestant ethic that combined hard work and moral uprightness.[vi] It is clear that Washington considered hard work, education, racial solidarity, and cooperation between blacks and whites (at least whites “of the better sort”) paramount. But his primary concern was the establishment of a sound and independent economic base by and for blacks themselves. He said,
I believe the past and present teach but one lesson that there is but one solution property, economy, education, and Christian character The individual or race that owns the property, pays the taxes, possesses the intelligence and substantial character, is the one which is going to exercise the greatest control in government. [italics added][vii]
Clearly, Washington did not suggest here, as many have charged, that economics alone was sufficient for black progress. But it seems clear that Washington understood that the political hierarchy in America was based on economic power and he wanted blacks as a group to gain a foothold in government by the direct route of economic success.[viii]
Ultimately, in The Story of the Negro, Booker T. Washington described a “new Negro for a new century,” who stood upon the bulwark of his own economic independence and predated by a generation Alain Locke’s cultural “new Negro.” Locke would report on a cultural revolution (the Harlem Renaissance) with the goal of demonstrating African-American excellence in “European high arts” (literature, classical music, painting and sculpture, among others) to prove that blacks were worthy of mainstream political and social equality.[ix] But for the majority of black leaders of Washington’s time, the key to the “newness” he described seemed to be codifying a history of their own. Indeed, Washington’s fixation on uncovering the key to his own history initially led him to long for the life of an African missionary, although he settled for sending Tuskegee students to Africa to train Africans and for accepting Africans as students at Tuskegee. The two-volume Story of the Negro emphasizes the role of Africans in “European” explorations of the “new world,” demystifies African culture, religion, and philosophies, and points to the likelihood that the failure of Americans (of all colors) to take an honest look at the role slavery played in the foundations of America could hobble the nation and keep it from making necessary progress. Because the book was written only approximately fifty years after the end of slavery, it makes sense that the bulk of volume I of The Story focuses on slavery (Africa, the transatlantic slave-trade, slave ships, Indian slaves, slave insurrections, slave soldiers, etc.), but that may not be the only reason. Washington understood that unless and until white Americans stared its peculiar institution in the face, compiling a true history would be problematic.
But this was also true for African Americans, and Washington sought to vanquish blacks’ demons vis-à-vis the slavery experience in The Story. Volume II is a classic Washingtonian primer on the dignity of labor, the connection between labor and self-respect, and the connection between self-respect and economic independence. He sets out frankly in black and white the importance of black farmers doing whatever they needed to do—including plow through the daylight hours as well as by moonlight—in order to own their own farms and avoid being wage slaves in debt to their former owners. Washington extolled the all-black townships and colleges established in the wake of Reconstruction and in the face of a sustained and violent campaign by certain elements of white society to ensure that such enterprises, and indeed emancipation itself, ended in failure. (Tellingly, Washington titled one chapter “The Negro Bank and The Moral Uplift,” which acts as a flag to anyone unclear about his views. Washington wanted blacks to avoid being slaves again in any sense of the word and also devoted chapters to the black aesthetic, which he saw as inextricably linked to the African experience, and to African Americans’ place in American society.) But education remained of critical importance and to Washington, the black teacher, perhaps especially the female black teacher, was one of the most admirable professionals.
From the late nineteenth century until his death in 1915, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois were the titans who dominated black intellectual and cultural thought. Historically, the period represented the so-called “nadir” of African-American experience, in which especially Southern blacks were disfranchised from political participation, targeted for violent repression as lynchings increased across the country, and pushed to the fringes of American economic, political, and social life by force of law or outlaw violence and brutality.[x] But history has shown that things are not always what they seem and there is evidence that at times Washington and DuBois not only shared similar points of view, but worked together to dismantle American racial apartheid. The breach between so-called radicals and so-called conservatives among black leaders was exacerbated based on black radical interpretation of Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address in 1895 (the year another black leader, Frederick Douglass, died).
Washington had been invited to give the address to the 1895 Cotton States Exposition held in Atlanta by white businessmen who saw him as the “representative of the Negro race.”[xi] The memorable and unfortunate phrase,
In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress .
stirred a notoriety that continued until Washington’s death and cast a pall on some of his later accomplishments. But by that date having learned to read and then some, Washington was nothing if not a master of “ambiguous phraseology,” perhaps a direct descendant of the dissembling slaves had used to speak to white and black hearers simultaneously and yet be able to communicate two very different things to each group.[xii] In slavery, blacks knew this; in freedom, the lesson may have been lost.
Among those sharply critical of Washington’s apparent suggestion that focus on black economic success should outweigh efforts at outright agitation for racial parity in society were anti-lynching activist and suffragist Ida Wells-Barnett, Boston Guardian editor William Monroe Trotter, and of course, Harvard-trained historian and sociologist W. E. B. DuBois.[xiii] Trotter even went so far as to famously (or infamously) refer to Washington as a “Benedict Arnold,” and the notion of Washington as a quisling “wizard” ensconced in his fiefdom at Tuskegee dispensing favors from no less than robber baron-philanthropists Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller to Negroes who professed a similar mindset to Washington’s own persisted even after Washington’s death and despite his collaboration with W. E. B. DuBois to end racial segregation on the nation’s railroads.[xiv] Their collective opposition to Washington was one motivation for the formation of the Niagara Movement in 1905, which became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.[xv]
Washington’s goals in writing The Story of the Negro were quite specific. He sought to correct errors or negative stereotypes about blacks, provide evidence of the rich variety of peoples and cultures of Africa, especially “to show what the Negro himself has accomplished in constructive directions,” and to demonstrate the many contributions blacks had made to Western civilization, especially in the United States. (In 1911, Washington published yet another autobiography, My Larger Education: Being Chapters From My Experience. In it, he continued to attempt to unravel the puzzle of not only his own, but a collective race history that for some reason still eluded him.) One hundred years after its initial publication, The Story of the Negro remains instructive as citizens of the world and Americans in particular continue to grapple with persistent questions concerning the nature and importance of “race” and class; the role of African Americans in political, economic, and cultural affairs; and the often blurred boundary between collective history and individual biography or personal memoir. Washington’s history illustrated some of the methods blacks used to build solidarity and community, the continuing significance of each race and class to American identity, and provided important keys to the connections between stable individual and collective self-images and personal financial solvency and collective economic independence. These are lessons that are still of critical importance in the twenty-first century.
Dale Edwyna Smith is currently Associate Professor of Critical Studies at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, Massachusetts. She is the author of The Slaves of Liberty: Freedom in Amite County, Mississippi, and numerous articles and reviews.
[i] In Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 18561901, Louis R. Harlan gives Washington’s birth as having occurred “probably in the Spring of 1856” on James Burroughs’ farm in Virginia. Harlan alludes to a story that the date April 5, 1856, had been recorded in a Burroughs family Bible as Booker T. Washington’s birth date, but the Bible has apparently been lost. (2; 325)
[ii] Up, 18.
[iii] Up, 19.
[iv] Up, ibid.
[v] Up, 213.
[vi] Up, 214.
[vii] August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 18801915, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963), 83.
[viii] Meier, 193195.
[ix] Wilson Jeremiah Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 18501925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 97; Alain Locke, editor, The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Maxwell MacMillan, 1992 ).
[x] John Hope Franklin and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 1.
[xi] Booker T. Washington, My Larger Education (Miami, FL: Mnemosyne Publishing Inc., 1969 ), 171.
[xii] Meier, 193.
[xiii] Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, editors, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, (Lanham/Boulder/NY/Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000), 121, 227.
[xiv] Up, 199.
[xv] Marable, 227; Civil Rights, 222.