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Booker T. Washington - A Politics of Discrimination?


Throughout Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington appears to use what we could call a rhetoric of docility and subservience, of appreciation and deference. He rings a tone of reconciliation—at the book's opening as well as throughout— apparently to deflect attention away from the cruelties of slavery and to draw attention to the "goodness" of former slaveholders. In fact, while the institution of slavery, as the title of the book suggests, is its almost literal ground zero and the very animus for its trajectory (i.e. moving up/away from it), he tends to foreground white role models, both male and female, to elide any direct confrontation with the bondage of black Americans. Washington's emphasis throughout is on interracial cooperation, sympathy and—in the distant historical future—eventual equality.

The Argument/Thesis

  • Washington, the minority writer, appears to be more critical of white majority culture when he can use an-other minority as a screen, as a filter through which to judge the White System.
  • Does such an indirect means of critique also reveal his own politics of discrimination, or/and is it a (more properly) modernist mask to articulate his social and political concerns in a non-threatening, audience-friendly manner?

Exhibit #1: Educating Native Americans at Hampton Institute (ch. VI)

  • The things that they disliked most, I think, were to have their long hair cut, to give up wearing their blankets, and to cease smoking; but 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.
    • a more direct critique of the conformist pressures of white culture—but only through the detour of the other, the non-Black minority (part of the protocol of indirection)
  • How often have I wanted to say to white students that they lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others, and the more unfortunate the race, and the lower in the scale of civilization, the more does one raise one's self by giving the assistance.
    • implicit hierarchy of cultivatedness: Whites > Blacks > Native Americans

Exhibit #2: Immigrants in the 1890s (ch. XIV, Atlanta Expo Address)

  • "Cast down your bucket where you are." Cast it down among the eight million of Negroes whose habit you know.... Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your field, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities . . . . you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen.... so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, . . . .
    • Washington again playing out one other against another other: cultural superiority of (time-tested) blacks over foreigners: a) unwavering commitment to manual work "without strikes and labor wars"; b) African-Americans as known quantity; c) unmatched loyalty to white race "that no foreigner can approach" (foreigners, one might add, from predominantly southeast European countries, whose complexion was frequently also swarthy and dark); d) feeding into prevailing xenophobia (capitalizing on the historical moment).
  • The Mask of Minstrelsy: Ministering to the White Masses, or, How not to Get Booked—Washington as "the quintessential herald of modernism in black expressive culture" (Baker, Modernism 37)
    • "[I]t is, first and foremost, the mastery of the minstrel mask by blacks that constitutes a primary move in Afro-American discursive modernism" 17
    • "For he or she had the task of transforming the mask and its sounds into negotiable discursive currency. In effect, the task was the production of a manual of black speaking, a book of speaking back and black" 24
    • "Any southern spokesperson—and this was, preeminently, the role that Washington occupied—who would be kindly received by a southern audience at the turn of the century had to set forth a dim view of black Reconstruction politics. Washington not only plays the role of a judiciously southern post-Reconstruction racist but also [elsewhere in Slavery] supplied a preposterous character direct from minstrelsy to play the dark role in this condemnatory drama " 28
    • "Although the narrator may be stunningly capable of standard English phraseology, crafty political analyses, and smooth verbal gymnastics that move him through an amazing invocation and half-invention of a pastoral Eden at Tuskegee . . . there can be no worry that the Negro is getting ‘out of hand.' For at all the proper turns, there are comforting sounds and figures of a minstrel theater " 30

Works Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago P, 1987.
  • Baker, Houston A., Jr., and Patricia Redmond (eds). Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s.
  • Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago P, 1989.
  • Dickson, D. Bruce, Jr. Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary
  • Tradition 1877-1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989 (pp. 185-189 esp. helpful)
  • Sundquist, Eric (ed). The Oxford W. E. B. DuBois Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
  • Any search engine will lead you to the most useful websites on Washington and the Harlem Renaissance.

Suggested Readings

  • E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1975), featuring a reconstructed post-Reconstruction BTW

Concluding Question

  • To what degree is W. E. B. DuBois' position (in The Souls of Black Folk) similar to and different from Washington's in Slavery? What might account for these (frequently, rather obvious) similarities and differences? What, if any, traces of hierarchical (and racial) thinking can you see in DuBois as well?


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