Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A statue on the campus of Tuskegee Institute illustrates the historical impact of Booker T. Washington, the school’s founder. The memorial shows the famous African American educator removing a covering from the head of a black male student. Below are inscribed these words: “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.”

Sometimes called the “great accommodator,” Washington made his mark on history by establishing Tuskegee Institute as the foremost black vocational institution in the United States. His method was to teach young black people to improve themselves through hard work and learning a trade of marketable value: “I think that the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community.”

Washington’s educational philosophy was the product of his own difficult road upward from a childhood lived in slavery. His “Atlanta Compromise” address on September 18, 1895, to the Cotton States Exposition, delivered just seven months after the death of Frederick Douglass, established him as the leading public spokesman for African American interests. There was little in his early life to suggest that he would become such a powerful influence that poet Langston Hughes would say, “Booker T. Washington was the Roy Wilkins, James Farmer and Martin Luther King of his day rolled into one.”

Up from Slavery is Washington’s account of his life and the Tuskegee movement. In seventeen chapters, Washington traces his life, from the modest cabin in Virginia where he was born to a black cook and a white father, to sumptuous Parisian hotels and stately homes of English noblemen he visited four decades later.

Carefully worded to reflect his gradualist approach, Washington’s autobiography is both highly readable and absorbing. Like his life in general, his book elicited little controversy and tended to confirm his position as Frederick Douglass’s successor. It is a self-effacing story that consciously avoids an image of egocentrism and is thus consistent with his effort to inspire his race to advance by self-help. Any affirmation and praise is presented in the form of letters and speeches about him by others. This is not to say that Up from Slavery is disingenuous. On the contrary, Washington seems quite sincere in his self-denying account. His purpose in writing the book, it seems, was to reinforce his educational work by seeking larger public support for the concept of racial cooperation and mutual respect.

By his own admission, Washington did not know the exact date of his birth. “I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia,” he notes in his opening chapter. “As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a crossroads post-office called Hale’s Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859.” Scholars later estimated that his birth year was 1856. His earliest memories included living in slave quarters. Known simply as “Booker” (although, as he discovered later, his mother had named him Booker Taliaferro), the embarrassed young boy added Washington when he started school and noticed that the other children had family names.

His early interest in education shaped Washington’s childhood and permanently influenced his life. Opportunities for young black people were severely limited and often dependent on their willingness to take advantage of whatever...

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Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Up from Slavery: An Autobiography is a representative work in an important literary genre and was one of the last slave narratives to be written. The first chapters of the book briefly describe the impact of slavery on Booker T. Washington and other slaves in the South; Washington describes the slaves’ existence as one of poverty and ignorance. Washington thus condemns slavery as an institution established for selfish financial reasons. He describes how slaves were bought and sold as if they were farm animals, and he speculates that the purchase of his mother, for example, probably did not arouse any more curiosity than the purchase of a horse or cow. He also explains the terrible consequences of slavery for slave families, noting that, “Of my father I know even less than of my mother. I do not even know his name.”

Washington also describes how he could not remember a single instance during his childhood or early boyhood in which his family ate a meal in a civilized manner; he explains that “meals were gotten by the children very much as dumb animals get theirs.” More important, though, is Washington’s description of his longing to be in school: “The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.”

Washington’s desire for an education is the major theme of the early part of the narrative. He describes his struggles to become literate as he learned the alphabet while doing manual labor. He also went to great lengths to get to school on time, resetting the clock at the salt mine where he worked so that he could leave early enough. Getting an education meant a chance to move up and out of his predicament....

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cain, William E. “Forms of Self-Representation in Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. ” Prospects 12 (1987): 201-222. Cain deals effectively with an often-neglected aspect of Up from Slavery, its literary style. Washington deliberately and carefully crafted the wording of his book in a conscious attempt to avoid seeming egocentric. According to Cain, Washington consciously used a literary counterpart to the typical self-effacement acts used by black people of that period to avoid clashes with white people.

Carroll, Rebecca, ed. Uncle Tom or New Negro: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and “Up From Slavery One Hundred Years Later.” New York: Broadway Books/Harlem Moon, 2006. Compilation of personal essays African American businesspeople, artists, writers, and political leaders, who discuss Washington’s legacy and its meaning to each essayist.

Daniel, Pete. “Up from Slavery and Down to Peonage: The Alonzo Bailey Case.” Journal of American History 57 (December, 1970): 654-670. An interesting addendum to typical coverage of Washington. Daniel discusses in detail the case of Alonzo Bailey, an Alabama laborer who had received a monetary advance for a job he did not complete. The state law imposed punishment on offenders as if they had stolen money from the prospective employer and was...

(The entire section is 510 words.)