What kind of feelings do the opening lines of Up From Slavery arouse: "I must have been born somewhere and at some time"?
In today's world, in most places, we know where and when we were born. This is largely taken for granted, but knowing these facts about ourselves is a precious piece of our identity. We might return to our birthplaces as a means of returning to our roots. This is a kind of touchstone for many. And certainly, we make a big fuss about our birthdays and know exactly how old we are on our birthdays.
When I imagine Booker T. Washington as he writes this, I feel the sadness of not having that piece of identity. Washington could not return to his birthplace. He did not know where it was. He could not celebrate a proper birthday. He did not even know how old he was.
But beyond that, it is the sadness of what that lack represents that pulls at our heartstrings. Washington did not know these facts about himself because he was born a slave. Slaves were a commodity. They had no need of birthdays. Slaves were a means of making money. They had no need to consider their geographic roots. Slaves existed solely to work for their masters. Why should it matter who or where their parents and families were? Slaves were not considered human beings. Thus they had no entitlement to an identity at all. There are people who celebrate the birthdays of their pets, providing more for an animal than slaves were provided.
These lines represent Washington's beginnings, deprived of identity in a way we all assume is a given. And it is good to remind ourselves that we have treated people this way in the past, to understand how this must have felt, for millions of people like Washington, so that we can ensure that this never happens again.