26 September 2018
Black Privilege: Respectability Politics of Booker T. Washington
Despite the United States’ relatively brief time as a nation, its entire history concerning its African-American population is sordid. After slavery was abolished, it was the job of all Americans to come together to address the atrocious means by which this country procured its wealth, and that task has yet to be rectified in a meaningful way. The nation looked to distinguished and educated men to help navigate what an equitable country could look like, and in 1901, Booker T. Washington fit the bill. In his book Up from Slavery, Washington uses point of view, tone, and setting to highlight how privileges afforded to him as a young boy informed his work as a revolutionary figure later in his life—perhaps to the detriment of his own people.
Booker T. Washington’s first-person account brings the reader into his early life on a Southern plantation. Filled with anecdotes of his early childhood, the first chapter of his book chronicles his childhood as a slave, his family life, and being oddly fond of his masters. Washington recounts anecdotally that his owners were not “especially cruel, for they were not, as compared with others” (1). His writing reflects this point of view in an almost positive reimagining of abject oppression. Knowing his experience is one of exception, Washington doesn’t attempt to make light of slavery, but does, however, reflect that positivity could be found in a deplorable institution. This is also not to say that Washington didn’t endure hardship, but his merciful owners are the exception and not the rule—not to mention inherently paradoxical.
Setting also plays a crucial role in Washington’s accommodations to his Southern white peers. Washington makes mention of the desolate and bleak conditions he and his family were forced to live in, which was very common for slaves in the 19th century. What’s not as common, however, is the merciful treatment bestowed upon Washington and his family. While acknowledging the pain and suffering of his family, he glosses over any physical or emotional trauma he might have faced himself. This is primarily due to his family’s standing with the masters; his family cooked and prepared meals for the owner’s family, which was a privileged position on the plantation. Washington’s privilege at a young age defines how he sees slavery:
The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority. Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape. The slave system on our place, in a large measure, took the spirit of self-reliance and self-help out of the white people. (17)
While this statement isn’t completely inaccurate, it’s only half of the story. Slavery was borne of the need for cheap labor, but its maintenance relied on the continued dehumanization and degradation of black bodies by any means necessary. The historical context in which his story was framed seems to ignore the importance of slavery to the American economy. It also minimizes the experiences of slaves who weren’t lucky enough to work near the home of the master, or worse, the slaves whose primary function was for breeding a generation of workers for sale.
Washington’s tone complements both his narration and setting. When speaking of slavery, he doesn’t hesitate to condemn the institution, but his experience with merciful masters extended to other Southern whites in a way that suggests that they too were victims of chattel slavery:
I have long since ceased to cherish any spirit of bitterness against the Southern white people on account of the enslavement of my race. No one section of our country was wholly responsible for its introduction, and, besides, it was recognized and protected for years by the General Government. Having once got its tentacles fastened on to the economic and social life of the Republic, it was no easy matter for the country to relieve itself of the institution. (16)
His tone portrays an optimistic, albeit misplaced view on how slavery operated for and by Southern whites—positing that it is a system in which the subjugation of Africans for profit is merely a byproduct of American government-sanctioned industry. His sentiments aren’t completely wrong, but glossing over the more insidious realities of slavery appears to be a practice in word choice rather than ignorance. He chooses his phrases with precision, and in doing so, sets the stage to play both sides for his multi-racial audience. It appears Washington was more interested in rehabilitating the image of Southern whites than he was in empowering freed black people.
In his Atlanta Exposition speech, Washington exhibits his ideals: that African-Americans deserve the respect that was prohibited in the past, so long as they prove their worth. Specifically, he states, “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing” (223). In hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which African-Americans employed a work ethic worthy enough for acceptance and assimilation, a world where a black man could succeed purely on the merits of his character with no societal prejudices holding him back—where this success was guaranteed to end in respect instead of competition. Booker T. Washington had a positive outlook on his circumstances and wished to extend his wisdom to the rest of his people. But his experiences did not mirror the realities of many freed slaves after the Civil War. His convictions don’t apply to those freed slaves who wanted more than just job security after their freedom. They needed assurance of safety from those that wished them harm, and vocational training or paid manual labor couldn’t facilitate that need for African-Americans. The country continued to change with and without Washington; his people saw both vast growth and traumatizing losses.
Washington’s ideals were revolutionary, and for the time, dangerously ambitious. Theoretically, the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps could have worked for any African-American, especially since they had a distinct advantage over the Southern whites regarding manual labor. But historically speaking, even in Washington’s early adult life, the animosity toward African-Americans was part and parcel to the fabric of the Southern states. Even after the slaves were freed from bondage, the prejudices against black men didn’t change. White supremacist ideology was so entrenched in the fabric of the country that it became a common thought even among African-Americans. Being aware that freedmen would have to rely on white landowners that monopolized the land, his tactic was passive assimilation rather than radical action. Booker T. Washington—although educated and hard-working—fell victim to the same “lost cause” mentality that gave the South the power to enact the Black Codes and Jim Crow legislation following the collapse of Reconstruction.
Since Washington’s time, many black leaders have challenged his judgment. Instead of keeping their heads down, they forged a path forward for justice and equality; they demanded respect with their voices instead of waiting for permission. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have never led thousands across the Edmund Pettis Bridge if he was beholden to his pulpit. Without Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, this country might not have acknowledged the epidemic of police brutality against people of color. Perhaps LeBron James would have never built a school for under-privileged children had he listened to people who told him to keep his beliefs on the court. Their power comes from a similar privilege to that of Washington’s, but building a ladder yields more freedom than constructing a wheel to enact the same disparities. While Booker T. Washington offered a way for African-Americans to educate themselves, his reliance on respectability as a pathway for African-American freedom discounts the important need for active resistance to oppressive ideologies.
Booker, Washington T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. 1901. Documenting the American South, 1997, docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/washington/menu.html.