UP FROM SLAVERY: THE STRUGGLES AND TRIOMPHS OF BOOKER T. WASHINGTON IN A DIVIDED AMERICA Even though slavery has been abolished in the United States for decades now, the stories from the people who lived in the period when slavery was still practiced and experienced the period after the abolishment, are still alive today. The experiences Booker T. Washington tells about in Up From Slavery range from haunting to inspirational, and give a clear view on the South of the US post-Civil War from the eyes of a black man. Even though Booker T.
Washington endured horrible circumstances during slavery, Washington sets an example for black people of the perseverance to succeed in the US and to overcome all obstacles. The autobiographical story in Up From Slavery starts with introducing Washington’s life on the plantation where he worked. As he phrases it himself: “[his] life had its beginnings in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings” (Washington 870). These surroundings, combined with devastatingly hard labor, created an environment with no apparent end in sight, and no hope of changing the situation.
This helplessness is expressed by Washington, as he sees other boys and girls his age going to school. Due to the situation in the US at the time, there were no chances at all of Washington getting into school, or as he calls it: “paradise” (Washington 872). When this no-escape-possible situation ends –when slavery is abolished– and Washington hears about a school for black people, he immediately is determined to go to the school. His persistence is recognized by the school board and he gets accepted in the school, which leads to Washington excelling in school.
When he began delivering his first speeches years later, he developed himself as a leading figure, who was fighting to help black people and other minorities to grow out of the place they have been kept in for years, and advance themselves. For black people, often in circumstances not dealt with by whites, having Washington as an example as someone who defeated his personal enemies by escaping his situation, was of grave importance. To actually see someone who has climbed to the top, coming from horrible circumstances, could inspire a next generation to work as hard as Washington did.
To let other black people get to the place Washington is, he not only talks about education, he also talks about always being friendly to white people. During a speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, Washington talks about significance of finding allies: To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”–cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded. Washington 888) By sending this message to people of every color and casting down ones bucket, Washington said that a society where black people could work themselves to the same level as whites could be created. This approach to overcoming the racial issues between black and whites did lead to criticism, with them saying that Washington was keeping discrimination in place by not addressing it fully. Especially W. E. B.
Du Bois was critical of Washington’s ideas, stating that “[Washington’s] program asked blacks to give up political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education for Negro youth” (Gibson). And while Washington did play down some issues, one must not forget the time Washington was living in, and that his speeches even without those issues more assertive leaders like Du Bois were rooting for, were controversial to many Southern white people. Booker T. Washington pushed aside the force of the Southern whites wanting to hold black people back and overcame his obstacles.
Coming from an enslaved and poor position, educating and working himself up to a high position, Washington was and still is an inspiration to all people, but especially for those who are in the position he was in. He gave hope to the people that needed it most, and his words still continue to do so. WORKS CITED Gibson, Robert A. Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Problem of Negro Leadership. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. http://www. yale. edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1978/2/78. 02. 02. x. html Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York: Doubleday, 1901.
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