Regarding Booker T. Washington’s ideas for the improvement of black life, were these ideas realistic or not? How were these ideas a product of his upbringing and background?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I tend to think that Washington's ideas regarding how people of color can advance in American society were very realistic.  The criticism that thinkers like Du Bois made against Washington were that his ideas were "too realistic."  They did not allow for an expansion of the moral, intellectual, and political imagination of African- Americans.

Washington emphasized industrial training and vocational preparation for African- Americans.  The famous line of "cast down your bucket where you are" clearly suggested that African- Americans did not need to migrate to the North or envision anything more than what was directly in front of them.  This is extremely realistic.  Washington suggested that African- Americans "learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life.” This is a very realistic position for millions of African- Americans who knew only of "the common occupations for life."  It was through this that Washington saw eventual equality as possible, as “a blotting out of sectional differences and racial animosities . . . and a willing obedience among all classes to the mandates of law.”  Washington did not directly advocate political or economic enfranchisement.  His position was realistic because it did not seek to disrupt the Status Quo in the immediate sense:  “Let us give the black man so much skill and brains that he can cut oats like the white man; then he can compete with him.”  Many White Americans were fine with African- Americans learning to "cut oats," as opposed to running for political office, seeking to own their own business, and demanding for political equality.  In this light, Washington's ideas were realistic.  Where the lack of realism might exist was in Washington's belief that embracing a functional and vocational perspective without any immediately further demand for enfranchisement would eventually lead to political, social, and economic equality.

Washington's ideas were a result of his own background.  His own upbringing was an embodiment of the "hard work" and sense of personal industriousness that was intrinsic to his own narrative.  Washington had to work in manual labor and in positions of subservience in order to develop the foundation that would enable him to achieve an education.  There was struggle from the bottom of life in order to facilitate upward mobility.  Washington sincerely believed that this blueprint could be the easiest path for African- Americans to embrace.  Through this, believed that eventual equality could be envisioned.  Washington did not fully foresee how much his position would be used by Whites who were more than happy to see African- Americans "cast down their buckets" and not ask for anything else that could resemble their right to entitlement in the American Dream."  It was here in which Washington becomes quite a tragic figure as he found that his philosophy was easily coopted by individuals that stood as the antithesis in his life's work of helping African- Americans achieve their share of the American Dream.