Critical Context (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)
While Washington received criticism for many of his beliefs, Up from Slavery has enjoyed a special place in the schools and has remained popular. According to critics Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in The Slave’s Narrative (1985), “Up from Slavery stands as a verbal structure that compels our attention. If it falsifies details of the journey, it promises much for our understanding of the voyage into language.”
Up from Slavery grew in popularity because people were curious about Washington as a person. When he was urged to write about himself, he wrote a series of articles that he later used as the basis for his autobiography. The book became a classic text; Washington’s story appealed to white readers especially, because he reassured them that African Americans were not concerned about obtaining political and social equality. He wanted peace and harmony between the races. Toward this aim, he first advised African Americans in the South to concentrate on achieving economic success, and only secondarily to concern themselves with attaining legal equality with whites.
Because Washington was a highly successful but nonthreatening African-American man, he won the approval of millions of Americans. His popularity grew because he knew not only what to say but also when and how to say it. Although he may have had shortcomings, his autobiography compels attention and enables its readers to see how Washington made a major contribution to African-American literature and history.