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...

(The entire section is 1490 words.)