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Stairway of Integrity
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington: Appendix 11
© 2013 James LaFond
Up From Slavery: An Autobiography
Booker T. Washington [1901]
Editing and commentary by Joan Dunayer
2004, Townsend Press,, U.S.A., 116 pages
“How many of you were sold at the same time?” asked Mister Washington, of the former slave.
The older man answered, “Five; me, my brother, and three mules.”
Such is the dryly engaging story of Booker T. Washington told. It was not his story, however, that he sought to tell in his autobiography, his most noted work. As a writer, Booker uses himself as a tour guide, and his life as a mirror to reflect a bygone and painfully formative phase of human social evolution. The man did not write without pride, but he did so without malice, bitterness or an ax to grind.
Up From Slavery is a primary historical source and is therefore priceless. We have very little literature from those who were once owned by the last great chattel slave society in the Western World. Keeping in mind that most of humanity has for most of history, consisted of un-free people that were the actual property of the elite, such books are priceless. Human livestock has generally been maintained in an illiterate state by their masters. For this reason very few unfree voices call out to us from the past, through the printed page, to tell their tale.
Mister Washington’s tale is not so important because it illuminates some rare and cruel episode in the human story, but because it illustrates for us what life was like for countless generations of our ancestors, whoever we may be. The first two brief chapters give a boy’s eye view of being owned by a minor aristocrat in a primitive Iron Age society. The chapters: A Slave Among Slaves, and Boyhood Days tell us as much about the life of a serf in Czarist Russia, a servile person in ancient Sicily, or a peasant in medieval France as it does about the life of a boy in Antebellum Western Virginia. The pragmatic to-the-point passages, delivered without emotion or judgment, make Up From Slavery all the more universal in appeal.
Chapters 3 thru 6 again offer a universal tale of poverty eked out on the fringes of an industrial society, which is still the lot of most human beings. Asia, Africa and South America are still vast pools of humanity most of whom live in a manner little different, materially or socially, then the poor folks of West Virginia’s coal country in Booker’s youth. This section of the book is an adventure, a coming of age in a transformative society. It is, at its core, a tale of selfless determination, in which the author demonstrates through a matter-of-fact manner of relating his simple labors and studies—including an attention to the redemptive virtues of toil that will surely fail to touch most modern minds—how he acquired an education.
The balance of the book is a lineal narrative of the author’s [and his associates’] struggles to establish and develop the now famed Tuskegee Institute. As Barbara Tuchman amply demonstrated in her major works, the recorded lives of such people are often put to good use as a ‘Distant Mirror’ for reflecting on our own present condition through the past. Looked at in this light, Up From Slavery offers a damning indictment of our current system of social entitlements and the anti-work ethos shared by all classes of Americans.
In imaging how Booker would judge our current social condition based on the observations and opinions he offered about the conditions and legacy of slavery, he would, I think, look around today and shake his head. He offered a clear, concise picture of his reasons for believing that slavery had robbed both the former white slave owners and the freed slaves of the ability to productively fend for themselves in a world not ruled by the whip. He actually admitted to pitying his former masters as they had no means to make a living after emancipation, for they had no useful skills, no trade.
Booker T. spent a lot of ink decrying the aristocratic aspirations of former slaves, who had internalized the ostentatious values of their masters which marked work of any kind as a negative, beneath the honor of a free man, and stipulated that flamboyant costumes were more important than the substance of a person's mind. His sneering indictments of the black politicians of D.C. spending all of their salary on fine clothes and the many parents of students who insisted that their children should only learn academic arts and not learn a useful trade, betrayed a sense that his cause of African American self-sufficiency was threatened by these old Cavalier attitudes. Little did he know that his life's work would eventually be defeated by the Welfare State and Hip Hop Culture.
Washington might be said to be the father of vocational education. He offers us, across the decades, a picture of a vanished world, a timeless lesson in the value of work, altruism and determination, as well as the rotten root system of our culture. If you want to know where a lot of the negative aspects that plague our current society came from, look no further than Up From Slavery. If you read this book and then look around you, it will be clear that most of the problem people in our society—from government subsidized billionaire hedge fund managers to government subsidized gang bangers—hold the same attitudes as the slave masters and slaves of the Old American South.
To this reader it is still looking like a long way Up From Slavery.
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Sam J.     Jan 3, 2016

Lots more slave first person reports.
James     Jan 12, 2016

Thanks, Sam J.
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