Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462
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 as a house servant by a Mrs. Ruffner, who taught him the value of cleanliness and work, lessons he put to good use when he sought admission to Hampton Institute, a Virginia school for poor African Americans. There Washington received an education that led to a teaching job. Throughout these chapters, he gives the impression that his early hardships were a challenge that gave impetus to his later success. He stresses the dignity of labor and the importance of helping others as the means of getting ahead.
Beginning with chapter seven, Washington discusses his work at Tuskegee Institute, where classes were first taught in a stable and a hen house, and he takes pride in the growth of the school from an original enrollment of thirty students to a large body of students from twenty-seven states and several foreign countries. His educational theories conform to his belief in manual labor rather than intellectual pursuit, and he stresses economic growth as the important goal.
The later portion of the book is primarily a chronicle of fundraising and an account of grants and gifts. His image as a national leader is firmly established, and he includes newspaper comments on his speeches as well as answers to the critics regarding his Atlanta address. In “Last Words,” Washington expresses his hope for an end to racial prejudice.
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