Saturday, October 24, 2009

An Astonishing Book That I Had Never Read

An Astonishing Book That I Had Never Read

I was sitting over in the Boise Basin Library, in Idaho City last Thursday evening, waiting for a job interview. The Boise County Treasurer has resigned her office a year before her terms ends, and I was interviewing with the screening committee for the job. (I was number three on their recommendation list to the county commissioners--not bad, considering the deputy treasurer, who has years of experience in the post, is ahead of me on the list.)

Anyway, while waiting, I started reading a book the title of which is well known to me--but which I confess that I have never read: Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery. I was only able to get about five chapters before I was called--and I intend to finish reading it.

Here is a guy who was born a slave, remembers receiving his freedom when a Union Army officer came to the plantation, and yet there is no bitterness there. What astonishes me is to read such a generous commentary:
I pity from the bottom of my heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of 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. Then, when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe. This is so to such an extent that Negroes in this country, who themselves or whose forefathers went through the school of slavery, are constantly returning to Africa as missionaries to enlighten those who remained in the fatherland. This I say, not to justify slavery—on the other hand, I condemn it as an institution, as we all know that in America it was established for selfish and financial reasons, and not from a missionary motive — but to call attention to a fact, and to show how Providence often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose. When persons ask me in these days how, in the midst of what sometimes seem hopelessly discouraging conditions, I can have such faith in the future of my race in this country, I remind them of the wilderness through which and out of which, a good Providence has already led us.
The struggles that Washington went through to learn to read--and from there, become a teacher, and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute--are astonishing reminders of how someone starting with nothing but the ambition to succeed and the character to do the right thing, can overcome enormous obstacles.

Washington has gone out of fashion the last forty years or so because he was in conflict with W.E.B. DuBois concerning the right solution to the problems of blacks in the postbellum South. DuBois believed that nothing short of demanding full legal, social, and political equality, and immediately was acceptable. Washington's belief was that blacks needed to develop as an economic force, by becoming skilled craftsmen, needed to happen first--because Southern whites were simply not prepared to accept or even consider black political equality.

It is easy to see Booker T. Washington as an "Uncle Tom." But I think the better explanation is that Washington understood the ugly realities of the South; he grew up there, and had been a slave. DuBois had attended integrated public schools his entire life in the North; he was the first black Ph.D. in History from Harvard. While DuBois could write, movingly, in The Souls of Black Folk about the intrinsic "twoness" of being black in America--always with two identities--I guess that Washington better knew what was possible then and there. Like John Adams' famous assertion that he must study war, so his sons could study science, so that their sons could study art--Washington understood that as long as blacks were impoverished, because they worked in low skill, low status jobs, there was no realistic hope of achieving anything like political equality in the South.

There's a lesson here today. I know that in many inner cities, getting good grades is regarded as "acting white." And yet that is the only realistic way to break the cycle of poverty and degradation.

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