As a middle aged, midwestern small town raised white person, I knew little about Booker T Washington other than the name, and that he was considered by some an admirable and accomplished black man who did much to change his world for the better.

Looking for a good "read" on audible, I came across "Uncle Tom or New Negro? African Americans Reflect on Booker T Washington and Up From Slavery 100 years Later"  (or on Amazon, here.  

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In the Amazon description:  Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an African-American educator, author, orator, and advisor to Republican presidents. He was the dominant leader in the African-American community in the United States from 1890 to 1915. Representative of the last generation of black American leaders born in slavery, he spoke on behalf of the large majority of blacks who lived in the South but had lost their ability to vote through disfranchisement by southern legislatures. Historians note that Washington, "advised, networked, cut deals, made threats, pressured, punished enemies, rewarded friends, greased palms, manipulated the media, signed autographs, read minds with the skill of a master psychologist, strategized, raised money, always knew where the camera was pointing, traveled with an entourage, waved the flag with patriotic speeches, and claimed to have no interest…  (Remember, in his time, the Republicans were the social revolutionaries who eliminated slavery in the North, then fought a war that emancipated slaves and eliminated slavery in the South.  These are not today's Republicans).

All of which brought me to listen, to a spoken version of his book, available free on uTunes via the iTunes University free audio series (sorry I can't link to that).  Searching on google,  there are other sources on mp3, some free.  Of course, it can also be read, which is also free.

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The book description, and the original book that led me to listen to Up From Slavery are inadequate to describe this amazing man, his amazing story, and his heritage.  I was surprised to see him maligned within civil rights discussions and by some in the racial equality movement.  But hearing his words spoken, and reading his words, I should not have been.  Context is so important.  As a boy, Booker (no last name - that wasn't done) was a race slave.  He was denied any education whatsoever.  He lived in a cabin with a dirt floor, ate random scraps of food, didn't know his father, wore no shoes or shoes with wooden soles, wore scratchy, painful clothing, and his brother was sold to another owner.  Then the South lost the war, he was emancipated, and his family walked hundreds of miles to find work in a salt mine.  His mother obtained an alphabet book, and despite pressure to the contrary, and while working in the salt mines, he started his path to education.

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Ultimately, Washington (having taken his step father's first name as his own surname) did obtain an education, all the while working menial labor and depending to some extent on the kindness of educators, then became the founder of the Tuskeegee institute in Alabama - a college whose purpose was to bring former slaves and their families into a changed world, provide for families, and enter American life as citizens.

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Many of the Washington's statements appeased whites and criticized African Americans in his time.  These statements, generations later, were taken to mean he was an "Uncle Tom."  He was not.  Some of his statements could be said, verbatum, today by reactionary white republicans - and would be taken deservedly as racist.  But there is a monumental difference, and there is context.  In the Alabama, and rest of the Southeast in his time, there was true terrorism (KKK) with torture-murders and beatings, evolving Jim Crow law, and profound racist resentment by many / most whites.  Washington had to negotiate a fine line, in efforts to "raise up" African Americans of the South, garner support from white politicians, avoid excessive push-back from white communities, and fund his institution from a white legislature.  All from the background of someone who truly know what hard, often menial, labor can accomplish when the circumstances are right.  He knew that the opportunities that came to him were exceedingly rare, and he knew that it was his powerful dedication and mindnumbingly hard work that brought them to fruition.

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I worked my own way through higher education as a janitor, landscape work, painting, and other menial work.  After serving in military and putting my life on the line in an era when that too was scorned.  My fellow students often scorned me for working so hard, I was an outcast, and my grades suffered.  But in the end, my education was the road to a life I could not have imagined otherwise.  My origins were a quantum easier than Washington's, without racial prejudice (and with what academics now call white "privilege"), and by no means pioneering, but I understand the transformative value of hard work that he honored.  Maybe that's why his writing is so meaningful to me.  But also, the power of a human individual to accomplish incredible humanistic change, from his own efforts and mind.

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I recommend the book in any format.  Listening works for me.  So does reading.  Washington was a true of a hero as anyone could have.  

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Replies to This Discussion

Sentient Biped, what a refreshing and stimulating way to start this Sunday morning! You whet my appetite to learn more about Booker T. Washington. Your reciting his qualities of leadership intrigues me and I copy:

Historians note that Washington, "advised, networked, cut deals, made threats, pressured, punished enemies, rewarded friends, greased palms, manipulated the media, signed autographs, read minds with the skill of a master psychologist, strategized, raised money, always knew where the camera was pointing, traveled with an entourage, waved the flag with patriotic speeches, and claimed to have no interest…

In the Amazon description:  Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915)

Whatever it takes to bring about meaningful change may include some rather distasteful characteristics, and he certainly made a positive difference in his life and the lives of those who agreed with him and those who fought him, indeed in USA. 

Hope your day is full of interesting and peaceful events. 

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