Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
It has been noted that Up from Slavery elicited little controversy; indeed, the book was carefully shaped to avoid it. Written at the height of Washington’s career, although a time when some were questioning the wisdom of both his gradualist approach and his vocational emphasis in education, his book mirrored the author’s perennial commitment to the growth and influence of the famous Alabama institute.
There are no formal references to other books or articles. Thus it is not, in the usual sense, a scholarly account. Neither is it superficial or trivial. Washington wrote it during one of the most critical periods of American social history. In the wake of Reconstruction came disfranchisement, lynchings, systematic segregation, and widespread poverty in the African American population. Washington’s philosophy was only one of several alternative paths to liberation proffered by various black leaders. His voice was different from the powerful one of Frederick Douglass, whose death in 1895 thrust Washington into the limelight, and his differences with the more activist W. E. B. Du Bois were deep and intense. Up from Slavery is a product of the critical period between Reconstruction reformism and the interwar period of racial tension.
In the broader spectrum of African American social thought of that period, Washington occupied a more conservative position than either his predecessor Douglass or his long-lived contemporary Du Bois. Du Bois gave his energy first to the Niagara movement, a small group founded in 1905 to promote immediate political and social gains for black people and other minorities, then to the more durable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the Niagara movement and the NAACP, the emphasis was on politics, public education, and the courts. At Tuskegee, it was more a matter of getting better equipped to speak, work, act, and think in a disciplined way. Regardless of one’s estimation of the relative merits of these roads to liberation, Washington’s book stands as an important landmark in both American social evolution and African American literary history.