Up from Slavery by Booker T Washington

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Following the of abolition of slavery in 1865, African Americans were at a divide when it came to the topic of progress. While various African American leaders stressed the need for equal rights through means of political agitation, Booker T. Washington argued for patience and self-advancement instead. Washington, a former slave himself, was able to gain the support of thousands of newly freed blacks with his rags-to-riches story and optimism for the future. Ultimately, in 1901, Washington wrote Up from Slavery, a historical slave narrative to promote his racial ideology and reinforce the need for education — using his own personal experiences to illustrate patience, hard work and merit, above all else, are the key to a harmonious society.

Throughout the late 19th century, early 20th century, slave narratives were the predominant form of literature written by African Americans. Slave narratives allowed writers to use their own personal experiences to send traditional, non-confrontational messages to readers, both black and white. However, as more and more narratives emerged, the more similar they began to get. For instance, James Olney of John Hopkins University points out such parallels through the construction of an informal outline. He highlights how a vast majority contain a first realization of slavery, as well as a “record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the over-whelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write” and almost always a section containing their “reflections of slavery.” Although most slave narratives contain common elements as mentioned by Olney, it can be duly noted that each individual narrative provides its own message and outlook on topics such as identity, literacy and freedom.

It is evident that Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery narrative follows this outline created by Olney, from his first realization of slavery as a child to picking out his own name when granted freedom. Additionally, the narrative exposes the difficulties Washington faced in learning the alphabet with no real teachers to guide him along his educational journey. By detailing the unfavorable conditions he encountered and the hardships he overcame to obtain an education, Washington illustrates that progress is possible with hard work, patience and most importantly, determination.

Lastly, his reflection on the institution of slavery and society as a whole is another common element of slave narratives, however his vastly contrasts those of other influential African American leaders of the time period. Overall, Booker T. Washington uses the elements of a slave narrative to provide not only true, factual evidence that one can rise up from the lowest of economic standings and thrive in American society, but also to promote his racial ideology and his upmost desire for education.

In Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington completely flips the narrative on slavery and promotes a racial ideology unfamiliar with many. While Washington did not condone the institution of slavery and the exploitation of blacks for selfish and financial reasons, he also perceived slavery as a method to introduce blacks to Christianity and Western civilization — firmly believing newly freed slaves in America were better off than other blacks in the world because of this. Washington’s ideology of racial uplift essentially denies the negative effects the institution of slavery had on African Americans. After the Emancipation, many influential black leaders placed the blame on racist white southerners and slavery for the deficits seen throughout newly freed slaves.

However, Washington flips this narrative, suggesting that “the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did,” and if anything, the institution of slavery “took the spirit of self-reliance and self-help out of the white people” (681). In this flipped narrative, white Americans were hurt the most by slavery because by requiring blacks to do all their work they lost the desire to work themselves and because whites suffer more from racism because they lost individual morality — something Washington viewed as of greater importance than any social or economical progress. End sentence.

Another aspect of Washington’s narrative was his desire for education. This “desire” is evident throughout the narrative, particularly when Washington details the obstacles he faced to become literate while working for his family at a young age. In Washington’s eyes, securing an education meant a chance to rise up from his current predicament and into a position of success. His ‘determination to secure an education at any cost” illustrates how deeply he believed in the importance of education and literacy in the development of young people, particularly young black Americans (688). Overall, the narrative proposes that the upon the freeing of slaves, the government failed to support their educational desires with teachers and proper institutions for learning; Thus, African Americans must take it upon themselves to acquire an education in regards to the liberal arts if they desired to further themselves in American society.

However, as time progressed, Booker T. Washington began to denounce the liberal arts in favor of practical education, reiterating the importance of proving self worth through manual labor. For instance, in his “Atlanta Exposition Address,” Washington pushes practical, useful education to the top of his educational philosophy. Washington proclaims that “it is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercises of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house” (692).

In his eyes, the opportunity to work hard and earn one’s own money was more important than receiving training in the liberal arts. There is almost a sense of irony in this. While he still acknowledges the importance reading and writing has on the gradual progress of blacks in society, he still falls back on the stereotypical white ideology of blacks being relegated to physical labor. Further expanding on his racial ideology that the subordination of blacks by whites was a necessary evil African American had to face in order to prove they were worthy of full political and economical rights in American society. Ultimately, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery contained both ideals and themes that vastly contrasted those of other popular leaders, resulting in harsh criticism from many.

The overall purpose of the slave narrative was to stress the notion that progress requires patience and that blacks should not force equality immediately upon whites. Washington argues “that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves,” – restating that they must allow whites to make the decision on their own time without agitation (696). Ultimately, the narrative suggests that African Americans will obtain political rights as they grow in intelligence and character and continue to work hard and acquire property.

Nonetheless, with such high praise also came critique. Washington’s philosophy and racial agenda seen throughout Up from Slavery was subject to harsh criticism from other African Americans of the era. For instance, a strong opponent to Booker T. Washington was William Monroe Trotter. In William A. Edwards paper regarding the life of William Monroe Trotter, he highlights how Trotter believed “Washington’s idea of racial subordination and industrial education” contradicted the idea of progress for African Americans (13). Ultimately, Trotter saw the irony in Washington’s racial ideology and his stance on deferring the fight for equal rights, particularly voting rights, in favor of low-level economic jobs in America. Although Washington argued for gradual progress, all the claims he made only seemed to take African Americans back a step, rather than forward.

Overall, Booker T. Washington was optimistic about the future for blacks in America. Washington, similar to other influential leaders, stressed the importance of social progress but rather than pushing for political agitation, he favored a more civilized, patient approach. Washington’s Up from Slavery utilizes the elements of slave narratives to demonstrate, through his own experiences, that gradual progress is possible and to provide advice. While the narrative celebrates self-improvement through education, hard work and merit, it also encourages adopting white values — an idea uncommon among other popular African American leaders of the time period.

Ultimately, Washington firmly believed he could “say something that would cement the friendship of the races and bring about hearty cooperation between them,” but realized this harmonious society would take patience and efforts from both parties, especially blacks (690). Nevertheless, Booker T. Washington was one of the most influential leaders in the post-Civil War era and his narrative impacted the way many formerly enslaved blacks approached progress in the early 20th century.

Work Cited

  1. Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” Callaloo, no. 20, 1984, pp. 46–73. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2930678.
  2. Edwards, William A. (1988) ‘William Monroe Trotter: A Twentieth Century Abolitionist,’ Trotter Review: Vol. 2 : Iss. 1 , Article 6.

Cite this paper

Up from Slavery by Booker T Washington. (2021, Dec 24). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/up-from-slavery-by-booker-t-washington/

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