Review- Washington, “Up From Slavery”

Booker T. Washington, “Up From Slavery” (1903) – I picked this up at a library sale because it’s historically important, and Modern Library ranked it #3 on its list of great nonfiction works of the 20th century- the highest black writer, ranked above works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, and so on. To be fair it is a pretty conservative list, with “The Education of Henry Adams” topping it. But still, a big claim.

It’s not my place to adjudicate political fights within communities not my own. I will say that Washington has not gained in popularity since the 1960s, where the introducer to my copy discusses him as someone worth reading basically out of opposition. I’m told there’s an edition with an introduction by Ishmael Reed, a politically protean and contrarian figure, which I’d like to read. His rival, Du Bois, is name checked with more and more frequency, from where I’m sitting, and Washington primarily exists as a foil to him and the black freedom struggle.

Washington doesn’t do himself many favors in this book. His writing working class black people speaking in minstrel dialect would be enough to cost him legitimacy if he wrote even a few decades later. “Up From Slavery,” which is largely repackaged from his speeches, contains a kernel of an interesting story- Washington was indeed born a slave and wound up a quasi-official spokesman for his community, running a sort of millet system out of his school, the Tuskegee Institute.

But you don’t really learn much about how this happened. As far as Washington is concerned, it happened because he wanted it, he worked for it, and some white people were nice to him. That’s it. It gets more interesting when Washington spitefully depicts — often enough imagines — the dreadful fates of black people who pursue other values, like formal education, political power, and simple human enjoyment. Respectability and work — whatever work the white man deigns to give him — is the black man’s only way forward. Washington believes this to the point of intentionally degrading black political efforts during Reconstruction, bragging about seeing former black politicians reduced to servile work and drunkenness. It’s fucked up. Apparently, he took that attitude to Tuskegee, to the point where he scolded some of his own professors for carrying books around.

It’s possible to spare a little sympathy for the impossible position figures like Washington were in after the failure of Reconstruction. I wasn’t kidding in comparing his situation to the millet system- a minority at the mercy of a capricious and violent ruling majority, he tried, like the Armenian leadership before the Ottomans turned to genocide, to make himself and his community into whatever shape wouldn’t call down heat. Of course, it didn’t work, not for the Armenians or the German Jews or Iraqi Shia or American black people. How to rate something like this? A historical document written in fairly pompous late 19th century oratorical style, about disputes in a community not my own but touching on historical questions which effect us all… well, I base these ratings in the last case off of enjoyment, and this was a grim read. **

Review- Washington, “Up From Slavery”

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