Booker T. Washington

Last year I read Frederick Douglass’ famous slave narrative. Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1901) is also interesting, but for different reasons. It is mainly about the life of southern blacks after the Civil War, struggling for economic and political independence.  The tone is different as well.

Douglass’ reminiscences are very bitter, and understandably so. He suffered under particularly cruel masters from infancy through manhood. By contrast, Washington was still a child when the Union forces liberated the Virginia plantations. It may for this reason that his emphasis is always on reconciliation. In this way too he was at odds with the later Niagara Movement led by W.E.B. Du Bois which emphasized radicalism and racial agitation.

Up From Slavery is a work of profound common sense about race-relations that gets beyond ideological rhetoric. The lessons imparted by Washington are applicable today, to whites as well as as blacks, with their emphasis on individual responsibility, political restraint and the value of the free market. He writes that “the policy to be pursued with reference to the races was, by every honourable means, to bring them together and to encourage the cultivation of friendly relations, instead of doing that which would embitter.”

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