Booker T. Washington
Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed – From Up from Slavery
For the last day of Black History Month, I want to focus on my favorite historical figure – Booker T. Washington.
Not only is he amazing because he built Tuskegee Institute from the ground up and also advised presidents, but he was a visionary, a humble practical man that taught about something that hipsters and organic food enthusiasts and even dooms day preppers alike embrace today- self – sufficiency. He stressed this for the Black community as the only way to significantly progress and prosper in this new found freedom that had been granted them. Learn to live off the land. Like James Brown said “People, people you get over before we go under.Get together and Buy some land. Raise our Food just the like the Man. “
When I look at the world today, I see what a visionary Booker. T Washington was. The Black community went en masse in the Great Migration to the North to work in the factories and abandoned their homesteads in the South. We have been indoctrinated by the ‘New England system of schools” that stress individual achievement of community building. By and large, this seems to have had a negative affect on the quality of life for the Black man. First of all, he felt that education alone increased a Black man’s “wants” without increasing their ability to provide them, He also felt that political and individual financial gain were selfish. He would have disapproved of the Great Migration. A recent study showed that life expectancy of Blacks who moved up North is lower than Blacks that stayed down South AND endured the Jim Crow South. Recent events of Blacks being killed by the police in cities like New York and Cleveland highlight the plight of the Black man that has not changed since the days of Booker T. Washington. My own personal experience from living up North and down South as a person of color. The South provides a higher quality of life.
I would just like to share some of Booker T. Washington’s wisdom from his day. It is striking how much things have changed, how much they stay the same.
“With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition”
Some of the prominent Black writers from his day, like WEB Dubois, did not agree with Washington’s theories because Washington essentially supported segregation. He believed that Blacks could regain their rights in the South only by accepting the political status quo and working gradually to change it by proving themselves valuable, productive members of society who deserved fair and equal treatment before the law.
While I can understand where Washington was coming from on this in his day, standing here 150 years later, I agree with Dubois on this issue. We don’t have to prove anything to anyone about our work ethic, as Washington suggested. The system has been designed to denigrate our work and demand higher levels of productivity for any solid recognition -and this includes recognition through fair and equal wages. So Washington was wrong, the system wasn’t going to reward us JUST by acting right and working hard, because we’ve been doing that all along. Despite that, we also had to DEMAND and continue to have to demand fair and equal treatment under the law.
Outside of his belief that accepting the status quo and working hard to affect change, Washington’s doctrine of self sufficiency was right on the mark. He illustrated,through building Tuskegee, “the good that a Black man would do for himself and his people if given the chance to obtain an education and engage in useful productive work.” Absolutely true. This is truer today than it was in his time. Productive and useful work. That is largely what is needed today. But without proper compensation and living wage, then any work is neither productive nor useful. To work all day and not be able to provide housing and food for your family WITHOUT government assistance, is neither productive nor useful.
Washington was a man not only words, but action. He believed that “Faith without works is dead.” His words were “it is the visible, the tangible that goes a long way in softening prejudices.” He felt that his time of being a slave had strengthened his resolve and his character to a point that he referred to slavery as a “school.” He felt that despite what it had denied him, that slavery had instilled in him a self reliance that was essential to any Black man’s achievement of dignity and influence. During his time, being Black and being a slave was something that was looked down upon, as if there were something morally wrong with you simply for being so. (Much like it is today with being Black and with being poor). Washington adamantly refused to allow that mantle to be thrown on him.
[I do] not justify slavery – on the other hand, I condemn it as an institution, as we all know that in America it was established for selfish and financial reason, and not a missionary motive – but [I] call attention to a fact , and to show how Providence so often uses man and institutions to accomplish a purpose
In his mind, he felt that the sin of slavery lie with the nation that allowed it to go on, and not in the individual. And he most ardently opposed any belief that his Blackness or his status as slave made him any less of a person. He looked at being Black, not as a handicap, (which is how the white people of his day- and some today- saw it), but as an advantage over being white. He felt this way because he said that “Blacks understood that in the emerging modern world, the race was to the strong and the swift, not to those who depended on the crutch of race or colour or family heritage to see them through to success.” White people in his day heavily relied on family name and their whiteness as a badge of honor, rather than hard work. As a matter of fact, they did no work, but relied on slaves to do it all. Washington felt that this attitude weakened them and he pitied them in their weakness.
Washington spoke on the fact that despite the reality of the debilitating and demoralizing conditions of slavery, the Black man triumphed. White people of his day considered slavery to be a disabling device. Washington flipped that script and called it an instrument of empowerment. It tested all human endurance – the physical and the mental – and Black people prevailed. To him, this truth could never be erased. He often noted that the sustaining heritage and influences of his life came from his mother and her race (his father was a white man). Although mixed race, he never failed to emphasize his pride in being a Black man.
Washington was a visionary when it came to accountability for slavery too. He foresaw that “whites would not accept responsibility for the evils of their institutions and would not tolerate any form of Black leadership or community building that did not at least seem to subscribe to the ideology of the dominant order.” Because he felt so strongly that there would be no meaningful accountability for slavery, he felt that self sufficiency was the key – that Black had to draw on their collective and communal strength and the knowledge that they learned while slaves and build their own communities and institutions.
In Washington’s mind, Black has shown considerable strength of character and forgiveness as many stayed in the south to help their former owners continue to work their land. He asserted that considerable strength of body was exhibited through the survival through the war, where there was tremendous decrease and scarcity of provision. In other words, if the government had given Blacks the land and provision, as they were promised, they would have succeeded wildly because they already had the tools for survival.
He encouraged Blacks to shake off the White man’s mentality that labour was bad. “The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation or inferiority. Hence labour was something that both races on a slave plantation sought to escape.” This was a deadly trap in his mind. To give into the thought that labour was bad, strips a man of his ability to provide for himself. And in that way of thinking, he felt that you truly were a slave. Coupled with this strong work ethic and his feeling that labour was good, was his thirst for an education. He felt that Blacks had to not only work hard, but also had to learn how to support their own homes, families and institutions.
Few people who were not right in the midst of the the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for an education.
Education has been denied Black people for years. So Washington and those around him were thirsty for knowledge. Washington walked several miles daily to get his education. He slept under a porch to get his education. I often think it’s a shame that the school systems today do not inspire this level of zeal for learning in our young people. Everything is test and goal oriented and has little to do with actually learning, versus gorge and regurgitate. Education is a really beautiful thing that is sorely missing in our schools today. And therefore, our young people take advantage of something that our ancestors were denied. Even in the best of circumstances they face punishment and suspensions at alarming rates. And they are always assumed to fail. It’s a horrible shame.
Sadly, his admonishment about what was going on back then are just as true today:
“The world should not pass judgment upon the Negro, and especially the Negro youth too quickly or too harshly. The Negro boy has obstacles , discouragements and temptations to battle with that are little known to those not situated as he is. When a white boy undertakes a task, it is taken for granted that he will succeed. On the other hand, people are usually surprised if the Negro boy does not fail.”
Presumptive attitudes and labeling. 150 years later and Booker T. Washington would be writing the exact same quote.
But back to self-sufficiency, Washington quickly learned that education in and of itself would not cut it, but education plus hard work, would lead to self sufficiency. And self sufficiency equaled financial independence. If we had listened back then, we wouldn’t be here now.
“Before going [to Hampton Institute], I had a good deal of the then prevalent idea among out people that to secure an education meant to have a good , easy time, free from all necessity of manual labor. At Hampton, I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labour, but learned to love labour, not alone for its financial value, but for labour’s own sake and for the independence and self-reliance which the ability to do something which the world wants done brings.”
Booker T. Washington had a strong and enduring love for his people and continually reminded them of their strength. He believed in his community and acknowledged that even though they were deeply wronged, that they could recover. This was contrary to what the white man was trying to teach them at that time. He was angry with the government for failing his people by making the dependent.
During the whole Reconstruction period, our people . . . looked to the Federal Government for everything, very much as a child looks to its mother. This is not unnatural. The Central Government gave them freedom, and the whole Nation had been enriched for more than two centuries by the labour of the Negro. even in my youth, and later in manhood, I had the feeling that it was cruelly wrong that the Central Government, at the beginning of our freedom, to fail to make some provision for the general education of our people in addition to what the states might do so that the people would be better prepared for the duties of citizenship.”
So essentially Washington was saying that the government had failed Blacks, that is was up to them to build their own communities and institutions. He felt assimilation would create huge problems because it would be at the price of losing our own Black heritage.
“Too often, it seems to me, in missionary and educational work among underdeveloped races, people yield to the temptation of doing that which was done a hundred years before, or is being done in other communities a thousand miles away. The temptation often is to run each individual through a certain educational mould, regardless of the condition of the subject or the end to be accomplished . . . no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language and professes the white man’s religion.”
Washington’s push for self sufficiency and independence extended to his feeling that the school system would not benefit the Black youth. He felt that Black institutions of learning should not just “imitate New England education” and that a strong vocational and practical education was necessary to lift us out of slavery and to sustain a strong community. Along with book knowledge, things like high moral character, unselfishness, industry, thrift, economy and proper etiquette and table manners were all taught at Tuskegee.
It is a shame to think that the one thing that has brought us so far forward, has also held us back. The school to prison pipeline and the prevalence of white middle class norms continue to perpetuate a lot of the same issues that Blacks faced during Reconstruction.
I will finish out the final day of this Black History Month with the conclusion of my admiration of Booker T. Washington and what he did at Tuskegee and how it relates to the progress of the Black community today.