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|Posted on Thursday, January 12, 2006 - 03:24 pm: ||
Booker T. Washington: Hero or Villain?
The writer Elizabeth Gardner Hines’s first memory of hearing about Booker T. Washington is typical: “I can clearly remember another black student in high school or college making a joke about ‘blacks like Booker T. Washington,’” she recalls, “and how everyone laughed, as if we all understood what a terrible thing that was to be.” The author of the autobiography Up From Slavery and founder of the Tuskegee Institute was a celebrity in his day, who visited the Queen of England and supped with the President. So why, less than a century later, was he written off as a joke, or worse, a race traitor? Does he deserve the bad rap he gets today?
Hines and 19 other prominent African-Americans weigh in on those questions in Uncle Tom or New Negro: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and Up From Slavery 100 Years Later (Harlem Moon, $15.95), a new compilation of essays edited by the author Rebecca Carroll. Washington serves as a jumping-off point for a debate about issues of tribalism, permissible vs. impermissible blackness, what’s right and wrong about hip-hop culture, the gains and shortfalls of the civil rights movement, and modern black leadership.
“Enigmatic” seems to be the essayists’ favorite adjective for their subject. Washington, born in Virginia in 1856, was nine when the Emancipation Proclamation freed him. Starting with only a shanty in 1881, he built the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from the ground up, developing an internationally acclaimed institution over the next decades. He ruffled feathers when he recommended that young blacks learn trades, while the NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois was championing broad-based liberal education. The duel between Du Bois and Washington, and indeed between many modern civil rights activists and Washington, emerges in Uncle Tom or New Negro as one of intellectuals vs. laborers, theory vs. practical ideas, political and social vs. economic gains, and North vs. South. Needless to say the book doesn’t actually solve any of these arguments, but it does offer interesting perspectives on Washington from many niches in the black community, from young and old, Northern and Southern, mayors and hip-hop politicos, journalists and CEOs, lawyers and activists.
Although most of the essayists in Uncle Tom or New Negro believe Washington had the best interests of blacks at heart, they disagree about the morality of his methods. To build Tuskegee and keep it afloat, he relied on white benefactors, since no black Americans at the time had enough wealth to donate, and he had to play a game with those whites. He charmed huge sums from the Carnegies and Rockefellers, but many feel that to keep the money flowing he sold blacks short, by saying what whites wanted to hear.
Perhaps his single most reviled sentence comes from his speech to a mixed audience at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exhibition in Atlanta, in 1895: “We shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”
While that remark and others like it draw suitable outrage from many of the Uncle Tom or New Negro essayists for endorsing segregation, the journalist Karen Hunter writes that such statements were a subtle psychological tactic, complimenting whites to soften them and then steal power. Others caution readers to take Washington’s words—as well as his belief that blacks should work within the existing society rather than alienating whites by agitating for change—in the context of his time and place. As the political analyst Earl Hutchinson points out, had Washington spoken avidly against segregation, Tuskegee would have lost its funding.
Nearly everyone agrees that Washington was looking for the best way to prepare blacks, who had just emerged from centuries of slavery with little or no formal education, to make their way in a horribly racist society. Northern intellectuals could perhaps afford to think about education and social change in the long term; impoverished Southern blacks needed to put food on the table right away. The author Debra Dickerson reminds us that Washington risked being lynched because of what activism he did show. Others, like the filmmaker Avon Kirkland, argue that regardless of the context Washington’s segregationism held blacks back and may continue to do so today.
The book’s consensus, if there is one, is to favor Washington’s economic policy, which encouraged self-sufficiency, and ignore the outdated accomodationist parts of his message. Washington sought economic equality for blacks first, expecting it to serve as a base for political and social equality. But as history has shown, true economic parity comes last if and when it comes. Whether because blacks have forgotten Washington’s teachings or because his tactics were ineffective or harmful, 40 years after the civil rights movement, black business ownership today is still nowhere near on a level with that of whites. Now may be the time to focus on the economic advancement Washington concentrated on 100 years ago. As Cora Daniels writes in Uncle Tom or New Negro, if Washington were alive today “his approach would be much more on point; now is when we need black folks to care more about ownership of self and work, more so than of material excess.”
The essays in Uncle Tom or New Negro, virtually all in the first person, come across as conversational and strikingly personal, illustrating how Washington has affected each writer’s life and career. The book serves as a testament not only to his enduring power but also to the life and vitality of history in the black community and in individuals’ lives. Some of the essays, of course, are more illuminating than others. A few seem tangential, efforts to dash off an answer to a questionnaire without doing any extra research. As a whole, though, the immediacy of the writing and experience in Uncle Tom or New Negro forms a stimulating contrast to the abstractions of more academic histories.
Perhaps the book’s most refreshing aspect is that not just one but two essayists reframe the Washington debate in the contemporary parlance of “playa hatin’”—jealous rage at success. “I think what you get with most of Washington’s contemporaries, Du Bois included, is what we now know as playa hatin.’ Those persons who looked at Washington in a negative light were just playa haters,” writes the philosophy scholar Bill Lawson. “But it’s important to remember that . . . the black masses understood his message and the value of his program. Consider that the statue of Washington in Tuskegee was built from funds raised by poor black people, which shows you that on the ground level there was all this love for Washington among the black masses.”
—Christine Gibson is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.
Post Number: 44
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|Posted on Thursday, January 12, 2006 - 04:15 pm: ||
Booker T. Washington was a great man. He was a slave who made a life for himself and millions of other blacks with no hope. However, he was not without his faults like so many other civil rights leaders of his day. Booker T. Washington was an avid colorist. He saw himself as a part of the mullatto elite of his day. He also spoke against intergration beacause he knew how whites at that time felt. We had just emerged from slavery. He probably knew that in his lifetime he would never see blacks fully equal in this country.
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|Posted on Thursday, January 12, 2006 - 04:32 pm: ||
A SLAVE with what we may consider slave like mentality shouldn't be surprising. What is surprising is that he still tried to do what he could for his people, and in his time he was quite progressive.
Also, it's been pointed out to me that BEFORE integration, black businesses were more successful, due to black people having no choice of other businesses. Here in Atlanta, there was a booming insurance company business for blacks. Due to white insurance companies accepting blacks, those businesses are gone, and the neighborhood they supported (Sweet Auburn) is just a shell of its former self, comprised mostly of empty buildings waiting to be renovated or bulldozed. (Interestingly, with all of those businesses closed, the Peacock nightclub is still in business.)
Perhaps Mr. Washington supported segregation because it would force black people to build their own businesses, economy, and workforce in that time so close after slavery ended when maybe a lot of people were thinking what would happen to them if the white master didn't continue to feed and clothe them?
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|Posted on Thursday, January 12, 2006 - 09:35 pm: ||
As we know, nobody criticized Booker T. Washington more than the radical black spokesman and one of the NAACP's founders, W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois wanted to raise the standards declaring that the talented tenth comprised of black professionals and artists should try and reach back and pull others up to their level of achievement. Booker T., on the other hand, had low expectations for blacks and thought they would do better if they just set pratical goals that would be easier to reach. Maybe it can be said that settling for second best is better than settling for nothing at all.But DuBois'"legacy" fared better than Washington's because it embraced upwardly mobility.