Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Happy Birthday, Booker T. Washington

Today is the 155th anniversary of the birth of Booker T. Washington--a birth into a condition of slavery.  Yet, even despite the denial of his freedom and the bloody war it took to end that wretched institution, Booker T. Washington's victory over slavery, was all his own.  Yes, he was only a child when his actual condition of servitude ended and he could not, therefore, have been involved in ending it.  But the lingering effects both of slavery and of the conditions in the hearts and minds of men that had made slavery possible, did much to keep a good number of Americans in a kind of self-perpetuating bondage; and I'm not only talking about black people.

Booker T. Washington, perhaps more than any other American of his generation (and many several generations since), understood that slavery was--above all--a condition of mind.  Its victims were not only those of African descent whose ancestors (or who themselves) had been brought to our shores against their will.  The victims of the institution of slavery were Americans of every race and color and of every sex and creed.  Learning to grow "Up from Slavery" was a task that required different things from different Americans, to be sure.  But the central thing it required of all of them was an ability to grasp at an understanding of their own worth and to look beyond those who would deny them the opportunity to demonstrate that worth.  Overcoming the slavery of oneself to slavish habits, slavish thinking, and slavish dependence are lessons that remain of fresh importance to each generation of Americans; and they are the first among the requirements for actual political freedom.  Few Americans--if any--provide us with a better example of how to achieve all of these things.   

Good things about Washington's importance and example for black Americans today are expressed in this blog post from Shamara Riley.  But, as I said above, in a way it diminishes Booker T. Washington's accomplishments to describe him only as an example and an inspiration for black Americans.  Booker T. Washington is an inspiration to all Americans.  His life was a demonstration of the highest principles of our nation and of the capacities for any man of virtue and determination to succeed on the basis of his merit.
Categories > History

Discussions - 4 Comments

In many ways, in my own sporadic reading of Washington, I could see Aristotelian prudence at work. See his last published article, in the New Republic, on the relationship between whites and blacks.

One puzzle for me: why does Ralph Ellison go after Washington in Invisible Man? Was Washington imprudent in his strategy involving whites, or was Ellison imprudent?

Peter, Lucas--help?

Excellent question, not easily answered in a blog post, but here's a start. (1) Ellison did not target BTW per se but "Negro leaders" who, "when the chips were down," sought "their own special interests" in addition to those of "white philanthropists, white politicians, business interests," etc. (see "That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure," 1961 interview, 76-77, Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison; see also "On Initiation Rites and Power," pp. 524-25). Recall that in Invisible Man, BTW is distinguished explicitly from "the Founder" of the Negro College, although the bird-stained statue IS represented unmistakeably like the one at BTW's Tuskegee University. Of course, Ellison really spells out the precarious predicament for ambitious black men not with references to BTW or the Founder but with Dr. Bledsoe, the black college president when Invisible Man is a student--a man portrayed as self-interested to the extreme, to be sure, but also a man of great influence with blacks as well as whites. Ellison wants the reader to consider what it cost an ambitious black man to amass such power and influence--in the SOUTH, no less!--for the sake of maintaining a college for aspiring black youth (and, of course, what it cost those same black students to gain that education). The time period of the novel (between the world wars) is important, given that Ellison writes later that the situation was changing for ambitious black leaders in the early 1960s, a time when blacks were discovering a strength indigenous to their community and not chiefly reliant upon white elites--namely, the black church, esp. in the South (he had King in mind here, with NY Rep. Adam Clayton Powell as something of a forerunner b/c of his black church connections: one who "was using the power of the Negro church to assert the Negro's political will"). Ellison addresses the problem of black American leadership more definitively in his posthumously published novel, Juneteenth.

(2) Ellison does says he is "very critical" of BTW, but not categorically so. "Washington was one of the most powerful politicians the South had ever known" (Indivisible Man, pp. 374-75, Collected Essays). Ellison was responding to those who favored Du Bois over BTW, and trying to demonstrate that BTW accomplished a prominence in the political-economic arena that Du Bois failed to achieve as a sociologist. Ellison said Du Bois fans had to acknowledge that as much as they liked his protest politics, as opposed to BTW's education mantra, Du Bois did not wield anywhere the power on behalf of black political rights that BTW wielded on behalf of black education. Ellison declared, "We've got to quit imposing second-class standards on ourselves," referring to the naive and shallow devotion of Du Bois devotees.

(3) Perhaps Ellison's most explicit criticism of BTW came in his reference to BTW's biography of Frederick Douglass, in which BTW "deliberately gave the coup de grace to the memory of Frederick Douglass, the Negro leader, who, in his aggressive career, united the moral and political factions for the antislavery struggle" ("An American Dilemma: A Review," p. 332). Ellison did not elaborate, but BTW dispensed with Douglass because, as BTW viewed the situation at the turn of the century, now that slavery was destroyed, it was time for blacks to be construction-minded (not destruction-minded). The time for Douglass's fiery protest was past; blacks, most of whom resided in the South, now needed to work WITH whites to satisfy their most urgent needs for food, shelter, and practical education--i.e., that which would cultivate a thriving, independent black citizenry. Once this was accomplished, BTW believed whites would be more amenable to securing greater protection of civil and political rights for blacks.

At bottom, Ellison had a measured appreciation for what Booker T. Washington accomplished personally and on behalf of blacks AND whites North and South of the Mason-Dixon line. Instead of reading Invisible Man as, in part, an attack on Washington, the novel's presentation of BTW (and the Founder and Bledsoe, not to mention Lucius Brockway, Tod Clifton, Brother Tarp, and Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer) is better understood as a reflection upon the possibilities and pitfalls for black leadership in interwar America.

This is rich food for thought, thank you. Did you see Diana Schaub's lecture on Douglass's Lincoln eulogy?

BTW, have you read Shlaes' Forgotten Man, with its account of the black preacher who got FDR rattled? Amazing parallel/contrast with Sharpton, et al.

For Diana Schaub's splendid examination of Douglass's 1876 Freedmen's Memorial speech, see the following:

Have not taken the time (yet) to peruse Shlae's book.

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