(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.)