Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, by Booker T. Washington, is an account of his life, which began in slavery and ended with his being a renowned educator. It is written in a simple style with an optimistic tone that suggests to African Americans that they can succeed through self-improvement and hard work. Although Up from Slavery has been ranked along with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791) as a classic story of personal achievement, critics disagree about its central theme. Some scholars complain of its conciliatory stance, while others see the work as a justification for black pride.
The book opens with Washington’s boyhood hardships, beginning with his life as a slave on a Virginia plantation where the lack of a family name and a history that would give identity to his existence was painful and difficult to understand. He mentions the slaves’ fidelity and loyalty to the master, but he stresses the brutality of the institution: A lack of refinement in living, a poor diet, bad clothing, and ignorance were the slave’s lot.
A struggle for literacy is the focus in the intermediate chapters. Leaving the plantation with his mother and stepfather after the Civil War, Washington moved to West Virginia to work in salt and coal mines, where he learned letters while doing manual labor and used trickery to escape work and get to school on time. His situation improved after he was employed...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Booker Taliaferro Washington’s best-selling autobiography, Up from Slavery, has been translated into more than one dozen languages and is part of an African American literary tradition that has found its place among the American classics. The book’s fifteen chapters give a progressive historical account of the author’s life as it began on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia, in 1858. The poverty and human misery of Washington’s early years are documented with unusual candor in the first two chapters. He did not know his father, had very little recollection of his extended family, never slept in a bed before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, never ate a family meal with knives and forks around a table as a child, and had a trying ordeal wearing his first pair of heavy and hard wooden “brogans” on his feet. After his family moved to Malden, West Virginia, to work at the salt furnace and coal mine, they lived in the most derelict of conditions, surrounded by unreconstructed African Americans who were given over to excessive “drinking, gambling, quarrels, fights, and shockingly immoral practices.” Washington worked very long, hard, and lonely hours, and was exploited by his stepfather, but he never lost the “intense longing to learn to read and write.”
Washington learned to read from an old copy of Webster’s spelling book that his mother got for him. Since African American teachers were rare, any black person who...
(The entire section is 1838 words.)