I had mixed feelings reading Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery.” I was immersed in his retelling of his childhood experiences in slavery, and his journey to find Hampton. The vivid details of the story make it easy to forget that this was a true story, not a work of fiction. Naturally, I was disturbed by the inhumane way Washington was treated when he was just a young child, and I admired his determination to get to Hampton come hell or high water.
Although it was very commendable of Washington to be a mediator of sorts between the races, it’s difficult to make radical change under the circumstances he lays out. For example: “The time will come when the Negro in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the Negro by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights” (1370). He gives the white Southerners too much credit, and never really holds them accountable for what they did to the Negros. He’s putting the Negros’ fate entirely in the hands of the white Southerners. Du Bois also points out this criticism of Washington, arguing that Washington “represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission” and “practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races” (1385).
However, Washington does bring up some great points, some of which are unfortunately still relevant today. One quote that stood out as really ringing true: “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” (1361). In America, we like to think that we are accepting of people from all cultures, but in reality, there is still much discrimination against anyone perceived as being deviant from American culture.