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The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations
     

The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations

by Michael Rudolph West
 

Booker T. Washington has long held an ambiguous position in the pantheon of black leadership. Lauded by some in his own lifetime as a black George Washington, he was also derided by others as a Benedict Arnold. In The Education of Booker T. Washington, Michael West offers a major reinterpretation of one of the most complex and controversial figures in

Overview

Booker T. Washington has long held an ambiguous position in the pantheon of black leadership. Lauded by some in his own lifetime as a black George Washington, he was also derided by others as a Benedict Arnold. In The Education of Booker T. Washington, Michael West offers a major reinterpretation of one of the most complex and controversial figures in American history. West reveals the personal and political dimensions of Washington's journey "up from slavery." He explains why Washington's ideas resonated so strongly in the post-Reconstruction era and considers their often negative influence in the continuing struggle for equality in the United States. West's work also establishes a groundwork for understanding the ideological origins of the civil rights movement and discusses Washington's views on the fate of race and nation in light of those of Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.

West argues that Washington's analysis was seen as offering a "solution" to the problem of racial oppression in a nation professing its belief in democracy. That solution was the idea of "race relations." In practice, this theory buttressed segregation by supposing that African Americans could prosper within Jim Crow's walls and without the normal levers by which other Americans pursued their interests. Washington did not, West contends, imagine a way to perfect democracy and an end to the segregationist policies of southern states. Instead, he offered an ideology that would obscure the injustices of segregation and preserve some measure of racial peace.

White Americans, by embracing Washington's views, could comfortably find a way out of the moral and political contradictions raised by the existence of segregation in a supposedly democratic society. This was (and is) Washington's legacy: a form of analysis, at once obvious and concealed, that continues to prohibit the realization of a truly democratic politics.

Editorial Reviews

The Journal of American History - W. Fitzhugh Brundage
One of the most important books on Washington and on black thought in recent years.

American Historical Review - Gregory Mixon
This is a book that must be read.

The European Legacy - Mia Roth
An important work.

Choice
Recommended.

The Historian
West's arguments...are fascinating and compel us to rethink our views of this complex and contradictory man.

Publishers Weekly
In this illuminating intellectual biography, Holy Cross historian and Africana Studies director West presents the "intertwined history of an idea and a man": Booker T. Washington as the progenitor of "race relations." Challenging the existing historiography on the Tuskegee Institute founder who legitimized the Jim Crow system, West argues that he was not simply a "black conservative" or a pragmatist, but rather "a man whose ambition to lead black people became entangled in the treacherous shoals of the post-reconstruction era Negro problem." Specifically-and provocatively-West argues that Washington was seen as "the Negro leader" by whites because he argued that democracy and segregation, two clearly contradictory ideas, could coexist, thereby defusing racial tension but also replacing the cause of justice with an amorphous promise of "progress." West's study stands out for its innovative argument as well as the author's deep personal investment in the subject matter and his evocative, even lyrical prose style. Furthermore, this valuable investigation illustrates the presence of Washington's ideas "at the back of the civil rights era's dramatic unfolding and ambiguous result," showing how intractable and serious the problem of racial injustice remains. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
With his famed Atlanta exposition address in 1895, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) succeeded the just-deceased Frederick Douglass as America's national black spokesman. Carroll (editor in chief, Independent Film & Video Monthly; Saving the Race: Conversations on Du Bois from a Collective Memoir of Souls) reprints Washington's 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, prefacing it with 20 contemporary perspectives on what exactly Washington's legacy has been or should be. Her contributors discuss education, ethics, economics, identity, and community; they comment not merely on ex-slave Washington's chosen path for blacks to take from slavery to freedom and his ranking in the pantheon of black heroes and villains, but also the best path for black advancement today and tomorrow. They invariably return to the old split between economic self-advancement and political struggle, between Washington's bottom-up, mass-based approach and W.E.B. Du Bois's top-down, "Talented Tenth" approach. West (history & Africana studies, Coll. of the Holy Cross) enters the debate with a five-chapter biographical essay that seeks to place Washington in his own time and place and to match his program with the possibilities of his day. Parsing the vocabulary and grammar that Washington used to render his vision of the "Negro problem" and its national solution, the author portrays Washington as a practical, moral idealist who constructed a vision dubbed "race relations" to reconcile the clashing values of democracy and apartheid. Provocative in conception, West's work redirects thinking about basic issues of segregation and racial justice. Along with Carroll and her contributors, West's reflections offer fresh considerations on the complex consequences of American racism, of its contemporary relevance, and of blacks' sometimes schizophrenic thinking about securing their self-identity, position, and advancement in America. Both books are recommended for collections on black life and history.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A dense reassessment of an iconic figure in American history with special attention to his notion of race relations as a key to social progress for African-Americans. West (History/College of the Holy Cross) presents not so much a biography of Washington as a history of an idea. In fact, those hoping to read a narrative about Washington's life had best look elsewhere, for West buries his biographical details in protracted paragraphs (some featuring words like "problematizing") that general readers will find more dissuasive than inviting. It is pleasant to take a leisurely journey along the path of a 125-word sentence in Trollope, but following the lengthy, labyrinthine trail blazed by a less skilled writer is merely tedious. This is not to impugn either the author's research or its results. There is much to think about and learn in these pages. West reminds us that Washington was not the only former slave who lived out a tale worthy of Horatio Alger (who, as the author points out, began publishing his stories about the time Washington was born, in 1856). West also deals frankly with Washington's nearly fanatical fastidiousness (a former student recalls Washington's pauses in grammar lessons to chide his charges about their personal hygiene) and with his wont to ridicule blacks in his speeches before white audiences. But West's principal interest is to explore the origins of Washington's belief in "race relations" and to analyze its pernicious consequences. Washington and his followers failed to see that their focus on "getting along" delayed rather than accelerated the granting of full human and civil rights to blacks. De jure and de facto segregation were the result; Jim Crow was thebeneficiary. West believes that Washington's notion persists in many quarters and concludes that "American democracy was betrayed by the American people." The author offers interesting assessments of other commentators on race-especially Gunnar Myrdal and (a surprise) William Dean Howells. Significant ideas entangled in turgid and uninviting prose.
The Journal of American History
One of the most important books on Washington and on black thought in recent years.

— W. Fitzhugh Brundage

American Historical Review
This is a book that must be read.

— Gregory Mixon

The European Legacy
An important work.

— Mia Roth

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780231130486
Publisher:
Columbia University Press
Publication date:
12/28/2005
Pages:
296
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Many [of Booker T. Washington's supporters] called him a visionary who offered a means of solving 'the Negro problem.' My argument is that Washington's solution was an idea, a theory... called 'race relations,' that opened the way for the ideological reconciliation of two opposites: racist proscription and democracy. Judged by the esteem of his contemporaries, Washington's idea was a great success. Judged by the sorry fate of millions of African Americans, Washington's leadership was a failure.... The power of Washington's idea-the race relations idea-is the key to understanding the successful progress of Jim Crow America and the shape of the civil rights movement that sought to dismantle Jim Crow

What People are Saying About This

Barbara J. Fields

For too long, scholars have approached 'race relations' as a fact. Michael R. West investigates it as an idea: the idea of resolving the contradiction between the Jim Crow system and democracy by substituting 'good race relations' for democracy. Identifying Booker T. Washington as an idealist, West traces Washington's idea-race relations-from its origin in his Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction experience to its survival and prestige among scholars today.

Barbara J. Fields, Columbia University, coauthor of Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War

Steven Hahn

West's sense of Washington as something of a visionary makes for very stimulating reading. His book has the character of a deep meditation, with significant historical insight, on how we have thought -- and thought wrongly -- not only about Washington, but about race more generally.

Steven Hahn, University of Pennsylvania, author of A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration

Meet the Author

Michael Rudolph West is associate professor of history and director of Africana Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

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