Center Stage

The Argument for Booker T. Washington

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Since February is Black History month I always like to take a closer look at historical black figures that have influenced peoples and events. Although African American history stretches far and wide, in school we always talked about the same few: Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Madame C.J. Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington. But reflecting on that, we didn’t even do the study of these individuals justice. We only scratched the surface.

Cut to the present, when many years later I got the privilege to read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery, I received a more intimate look into his controversial life. Mr. Washington despised the fact that right after the war, when many African Americans were still uneducated and unprepared, these same individuals would suddenly “be called to the Lord” and set up church or even run for political office.

He expressed the fact of being prepared, educated, skilled, even being expertly skilled in your craft or vocation. He believed that due to our being at a disadvantage – the direct culprit being slavery and slavers – the next step should be to learn to read and learn practical skills of life and trade. If you are an uneducated slave, can you lay down the meager implements such as the hoe and shovel and immediately pick up the law books? No. Education is necessary. Time is needed to acquire this education, and lastly, opportunity must be opened to you. Of which, Mr. Washington himself openly admitted that he was very fortunate in receiving from black and white friends.

However, persons such as W.E.B. Dubois took offense to some of his viewpoints. They felt that Mr. Washington perpetuated the idea that African American people would continue subservient until we become worthy (skilled enough, educated enough, and morally sound enough). My question is: did he say these things because he believed African Americans were in fact inferior (which would include himself) or did he say this as a strategy to allow time for those former slaves who were very underprivileged to pull themselves up and advance while allaying the fears of violent former masters?

I have a hard time believing that Mr. Washington felt that we as a race were inferior, especially when he excelled so far himself. I do believe he felt African Americans of that time had to proceed with caution as they steered ahead during that fragile social and political climate lest the bear get poked and African Americans be forcibly pushed back into a worse situation than before the war. While I’m not arguing the rightness of his methodology but one thing we can all agree on is this: your past does have a direct bearing on your future. Meaning, this man was a former slave, so he was at one time one of the oppressed, beaten down, uneducated, unskilled, and underprivileged. He also lived during the Civil War period in America, in which the slavery issue was a hot button. Do we not see how his early life shaped his later opinions to tread carefully, albeit determinedly? Does his choice make him a coward?

I don’t think so. You ever talk to an abuse victim? I have. It takes courage to make life changes, to get away from your abuser, to step out on faith, to leave family, friends, and what you’ve become accustomed to. That is bravery. The same is true with any former slave – which is a life of abuse – who did not lose faith, made life changes, got away from their former masters/abusers, and perhaps left family, friends, and a very subpar life which they’d become accustomed to. Mr. Washington did all of this to excel to become a leading educator, civil rights activist, and political advisor of his time.

 

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