Masterplots II: African American Literature Up from Slavery Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

At one level, Up from Slavery is an interesting autobiography by a prominent African American educator, perhaps the most influential ever. Washington certainly believed in, and unceasingly supported with time and resources, the Tuskegee philosophy that bore the imprint of Hampton Institute. The book is also an apologetic for that...

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At one level, Up from Slavery is an interesting autobiography by a prominent African American educator, perhaps the most influential ever. Washington certainly believed in, and unceasingly supported with time and resources, the Tuskegee philosophy that bore the imprint of Hampton Institute. The book is also an apologetic for that educational and race relations theory. Throughout its coverage, the reader is constantly reminded of both the difficulties confronted in building and maintaining Tuskegee and the supportive response by the American public, especially the political and economic leadership. Washington sought in the book to solidify and expand that support, always giving a positive note even in the most problematical times.

Washington’s account is also a valuable history of Tuskegee Institute from 1881 to 1915. Threading through the personal vignettes and commentaries, a fairly coherent historical summary of the institute’s development can be discerned. From modest beginnings, it grew into a major university by the mid-twentieth century.

In Washington’s time, it was largely a teacher training institution and a vocational school devoted to training African Americans in the requisite skills in an economic sphere that Washington assumed, not entirely accurately, would be the best source of jobs for many decades. As it turned out, the vocational training Tuskegee emphasized would not be sufficient to meet the job needs of future generations of black Americans. In that sense, W. E. B. Du Bois’s criticism was valid. Du Bois argued for cultivating what he called the Talented Tenth, those African Americans who could attain the highest levels of professional education. Tuskegee was so good at what it did that it grew from a one-building school with about thirty students to a major complex with six schools that included one of the best agricultural and veterinary programs in the world. Eventually more than three-fourths of African American veterinarians would be graduates of Tuskegee. In his memoir, Washington stresses the early formative days, when his school gradually attracted the attention of wealthy supporters and countless people of modest means who sent their children there to study. In 1898, President William McKinley visited the Tuskegee campus, fulfilling one of Washington’s dreams that one day an American president would walk on the grounds of the institute.

Up from Slavery has a distinctive place in the history of African American literature. In its own time, it was a best seller that aided the Tuskegee cause, and it continues as an item of interest to scholars and the general public. What it lacks in critical analysis it compensates for with its optimism and theme of racial cooperation. Washington has been underestimated as an activist in racial advancement. His views are easily labeled accommodationist, but he was hardly accepting of the status quo. In his own way, he was attempting a revolution that would give black people a sense of pride while equipping them for practical success through developing skills and social graces.

Washington’s study also includes several documents or parts of documents—among them the full text of the Atlanta address and numerous personal items, most of them letters and citations—that are helpful in reconstructing Washington’s and the Tuskegee Institute’s history. Few books have been written with a clearer goal, in this case to promote the image of the school that was the quintessence of his career.

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