The perspective of a slave turned influential spokesman is ripe with thoughts on identity, labor, and education.
The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #99/100
I read this book during a slight downslope of life. I am finishing up my final clinical rotation with my hand in several side projects wondering — what’s the point? This bit of nihilism is due to the amount of sacrifice with the reward being only a cloudy possibility in the future. I want to create a better way to do clinical education for physical therapy, but thoughts of self-doubt have crept in.
Enter Booker Taliaferro Washington, a name he gave himself upon freedom.
Reading his journey begin with absolutely nothing but his inexorable desire to do better, it reignited some old-fashion values in me: the joy of work should not be in the reward, but in knowing that you did it to the best of your ability. The dignity of labor is an intrinsic sense of satisfaction. This, and other lessons, I heeded during this opaque time in my life.
Born a slave, Booker did not know his father nor did he have a name other than his first. Upon emancipation, his family walked hundreds of mile form their plantation in Virginia to West Virginia to start a new life for themselves. In between working in the coal mines and studying for school, the now Booker T. Washington saved enough money (with help from others) to attend Hampton University. He runs out of money in route, sleeping beneath sidewalks in Richmond, VA until he can earn enough to pay for the rest of his fare. After some years at Hampton, he gets selected to open up a new African-American institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
The book is an overview from his life as a slave, the beginnings of emancipation, and the trials of opening a new school in the deep South. Spoiler alert: the focus is not so much white racism but black freedom. Washington avoids impugning his community members and focuses much more on a uniting message. This put him at odds with his contemporaries (such as W.E.B. Debois) as he was accused of being too soft on the white race.
The book is composed of two shorter parts and one longer: 1) an introduction of his slave life; 2) post-emancipation identity building; 3) the history of Tuskegee with his catapult into fame. Each section has its own messages and pithy quotes that made the book such a delight to read.
There are a lot of things that we carry inside of us that we take for granted. Where we are from, our family, a timeline. I’m not sure how far back it has to go before it is sufficient, but it seems like three or four generations would be my guess. A great grandparent to great grandchild creates a concrete scaffold for us to rise out of, to understand our place within the universe.
Slaves had none of this.
They had to build that. Not only that, they had to build it without a launch pad:
“The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated coloured people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them…In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved.
What a unique period in history. A massive release of millions of people into a society being told that not only they are free, but now they have the burden of figuring out all of that entails. We are held to these expectation today, too, but not like this. I picture the people in their late 60s who, denied for most of their life, have to grapple with some of the most important questions of modern life. It is an amazing testament to the human spirit.
Washington believed that meritocracy was the venue for colored people to receive the same recognition as whites:
“Every persecuted individual and race should get much consolation out of the great human law, which is universal and eternal, that merit, no matter under what skin found, is, in the long run, recognized and rewarded.”
By providing value, colored people would begin to rise in society. The focus of Tuskegee Institute was to give people not just a liberal arts education but to teach them skills. Washington was a big believer in the power of labor:
“…I have had no patience with any school for my race in the South which did not teach its students the dignity of labour.”
He received pushback for this. People were scraping by to send children to school where Washington was making them do work that looked an awfully like slave labor. This is where I think Washington shines the most bright: he somehow identifies all the problems with the university and creates a panacea for it.
The Problem with College.
To become a physical therapist, I will have student loans of ~150k. Now while this is a large sum, at least I’m entering a burgeoning field with plenty of opportunity for work. Others are not so lucky: they will have this much debt but enter the workforce with jobs they could have received without a degree.
Not only this, but because people went to college they expect a particular lifestyle. Since the U.S. Government is one big open line of credit for college, students live in luxury apartments and grow used to lifestyles above their means upon graduation. It’s funny how buying the latest iPhone can put you on the edge of financial crisis (talking from personal experience: the difference between $60 and 90$ a month adds up over a year and can be the difference between having an emergency fund or not).
Washington describes this problem succinctly :
“When the public school course was finally finished, they wanted more costly dresses, more costly hats and shoes. In a word, while their wants had been increased, their ability to supply their wants had not been increased in the same degree.”
How does he avoid this problem with his students? He created a committee that made sure that the students he produced were able to find jobs. In other words, he matched the needs of the community with the instruction within his school.
“In our industrial teaching we keep three things in mind: first, that the student shall be so educated that he shall be enabled to meet conditions as they exist now, in the part of the South where he lives—in a word, to be able to do the thing which the world wants done.”
I want to reemphasis a part of this quote: “in a word, to be able to do the thing which the world wants done.”
I think with the ballooning debt of students, the solution isn’t to make the general public pay for it via free tuition for all. Administrators should be held accountable for creating so many venues of study that don’t feed into the labor market. Does that mean we remove the English Major? No. But it does require looking at how many degrees that exist and reexamine how we finance them.
In these crazy times, we have all heard the claim that Martin Luther King was a Republican (never mind the Southern Strategy and how R & D flipped in the 70s). Obviously, it is an attempt to bypass some of the uncomfortable constituents of the party (*cough* David Duke *couch*) by connecting a person of color to the traditional values of the party.
While Im not sure what Washington would consider himself, he does have many instances of imploring conservative values. He wished that people of his race became more self-reliant versus depending on the government:
“Among a large class, there seemed to be a dependence upon the government for every conceivable thing. The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves, but wanted the federal officials to create one for them.”
Given the electoral college map, we know about the city vs. country split. Washington would have also been one to advocate for country living:
While the coloured people were ignorant, they had not, as a rule, degraded and weakened their bodies by vices such as are common to the lower class of people in the large cities.
In summary, you have a man who believes in meritocracy, the dignity of labor, relying on oneself, and living a good Christian life in the country. Trying to peg someone into a modern day party is a dumb idea, and I doubt someone as smart as Washington would like either party, but he does speak to many conservative talking points of today.
If he can walk hundreds of miles just to TRY and get into school, I can put my soul into something knowing I did my best.
Other People’s Takes:
- Nanjala Writes: “It’s easy to preach freedom and revolution from the comfort of my room in Oxford, but I really love his policy where he says that he would never say anything in the North that he wouldn’t say in the south.”
- Biblical Beginnings: “It’s also an excellent choice for those struggling to reach their goals. Booker T. Washington was a Godly man, who lived a life of clear and obvious principles”
- The Unfinished Pyramid: “The book is a call to former slaves and their descendants to accept that the past is the past, and they should focus on their future. The key to that future would be found in education.”