Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington

Wow.  Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.

I have to say, 2020 has been spectacular so far when it comes to reading great books.

Booker T. Washington was born a slave, freed at the end of the Civil War, and ended up becoming a formidable force for change in America.  As a teen, he convinced the people running the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to let him learn there in exchange for working as a janitor for the school because he had no money to pay for his tuition, room, or board.  After graduating, he was determined to use everything he learned to teach other young African Americans, so in 1881, he moved to the town of Tuskegee, Alabama, and set up his own institute of learning in two abandoned buildings there.  He taught about thirty students of varying ages, spending all his time and energy on building them up the way his own teachers had instructed and encouraged him.  By the time he wrote this book in 1901, the Tuskegee Institute had 1,100 students, 86 people on staff, was free from mortgage, and had 2,300 acres of land with 40 buildings, all but a handful of which had been built by the students themselves.

Washington insisted that his students not learn just book knowledge, but practical knowledge too.  They learned to build furniture and buildings, grow and cook good food, practice good hygiene, eat and dress and behave with good manners, clean anything and everything, and how to take part in various trades and professions.  He was equipping people to go be productive and useful parts of their communities, not simply educating them.  Over and over, while reading this book, I thought about how so many people today insist their kids go to college, when really college is not going to help everyone, because we need mechanics and truck drivers and farmers and fork lift drivers too, not just lawyers and doctors and professors.  I think the community colleges and trade schools and tech schools do an admirable job of continuing on with the sort of education that Booker T. Washington advocated for, and we need to not think of them as "lesser" or "secondary" to colleges and universities.

Anyway.  I was astonished by Washington's attitude toward white people in general, though I realize that his words may have been... tinted by the times in which he wrote and the audience he was intending to reach with this book.  He was almost militant about insisting that white people on a whole got along very well indeed with him and his students and were most supportive of the Tuskegee Institute.  But his attitude toward everything in life was relentlessly optimistic, at least as he portrayed himself here, so that fit with the overall picture of how he behaved and thought and taught.

Overall, I found this book very enlightening as to the kinds of efforts people were putting into educating and training and "raising up" the former slaves after the Civil War.  Washington's focus on helping others so that they could, in turn, help even more people was admirable, and I have a lot of respect for him after reading this book.  He also had a lovely writing style that made this book a fast and enjoyable read.

Particularly Good Bits:

I have great faith in the power and influence of facts (p. 15-16).

I began learning that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others (p. 32).

The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race (p. 75).

No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in plowing a field as in writing a poem (p. 107).

I pity the man, black or white, who has never experienced the joy and satisfaction that come by reason of an effort to assist in making some one else more useful and more happy (p. 143).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for some mentions of conditions in slavery.


This is my 41st book read and reviewed for my second go-'round with the Classics Club.

10 comments:

  1. I've been wondering about this book for a while, so I was glad to read this post! It sounds like he had such an inspirational life!

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    1. MC, it is an excellent book, really approachable and enjoyable. And, yes, inspiring!

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  2. Yeah, I love this book and this man sooooo much! Glad to know you had the same experience. :D I just finished posting about W.E.B. DuBois who had serious issues w/ Washington, and so did Frederick Douglass. (Douglass was more of he book learner type...whereas, as you covered here, Washington thought blacks should learn to use their hands and do physical labor. But I always knew he offered them both kinds of education...book learning AND physical labor, which is a well-rounded education, in my book.)

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    1. Ruth, oh good! I'm glad you liked it too :-) I know a lot of people had disagreements with his approach to learning and progress and race relations, and I'd like to read something by DuBois and Douglass to get their perspectives too. I'll read your post forthwith.

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  3. I absolutely loved this book. Instead of making the divide between blacks and whites even wider, Washington seems to see everyone as people and was aware of the benefit of hard work. I loved his optimism. I can't say enough good things about this book!

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    1. Cleo, I'm so glad you loved this too! Yes, I really liked how he stressed everyone learning to do something useful that can contribute to the world around them and help others, no matter WHO those others are. Powerful stuff.

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  4. I know of Booker T. Washington, but I had no idea he wrote a memoir. Wow!

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    1. Davida, I only regret that I waited this long to read it! It's phenomenally good.

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  5. Okay, so this was nowhere on my radar at all. Till now. And you intrigue me enough to make me add it to my TBR! Thank you. :)

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    1. Kara, oh, wow! I guess BTW has been on my radar for a long time because of my focus on history, and I kind of think of this book as one people have obviously heard of, but clearly not! I thought it was amazingly good. You would appreciate it.

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