The latter years of the 19th century brought with them a time of vast change in race relations in the United States. The end of the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed brought a slew of rights to the newly freed Southern slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau offered educational opportunities to African Americans and the 14th and 15th amendments had granted them equal rights of citizens and the right to vote (Lemke-Santangelo). Undoubtedly, the decade following the end of the war served as a time of hope and promise for the almost 4 million slaves freed by the 13th amendment (“American”).
However, by the turn of the century, major tensions regarding the status of African Americans had already begun to arise. Supreme Court rulings showed time and again that those in power were unwilling to recognize black citizens as truly equal. Southern states had already begun to devise methods such as poll taxes and the Grandfather Clause to circumvent the 15th amendment and prevent blacks from voting (Lemke-Santangelo).
Thus, the early 20th century was a time of heated tension between races, and out of this grew much literature that existed as a response to this.
During the early 20th century, many African Americans turned to writing to address the hardships that plagued them. Much of this literature expressed discontent with the widespread inequality facing African Americans in the years following the abolition of slavery, and attempted to push for better conditions and rights. In spite of the hardship and inequality however, one former slave managed to present a view of race relations that was distinctly less negative than nearly all of his contemporaries; Booker T.
Washington, who was still a child at the time of slavery’s abolition (“Booker”), writes in “Up from Slavery” about his journey toward success from the toils of plantation life—a journey wrought with both hardship and the demand of hard work. Despite the trials he faced, however, Washington presents a view of his life and of racial issues that not only fails to call for action, but that absolves white Southerners of any guilt in the application of slavery. Washington’s uniquely positive perspective on the issue of slavery and equal rights, although admirable in its optimism, is ultimately problematic in furthering justice for African Americans.
Washington’s piece, “Up from Slavery,” is initially striking in the positive spin that it attempts to put on the issue of slavery. Although Washington is by no means an advocate for the institution of slavery, he pauses to note that, “the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition… than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe” (Washington 1350). Here, Washington is suggesting that there is a benefit, however small or unintentional, of the enslavement of African Americans, an assertion that would today be met with fierce criticism and opposition by the general public. Washington also describes himself as having a connection to his masters, and remarks that he felt sorrow at one of their deaths. Despite the fact that Washington does not praise slavery outright, he certainly adopts a more positive stance than any other former slaves. By painting slavery in anything less than a horrible light, Washington essentially weakens the plight of African Americans during this time, and thus makes less pressing the need for justice.
Beyond attempting to put a less negative, if not explicitly positive spin on the issue of slavery, Washington goes as far as to deflect guilt from white slave owners. About his father, a white plantation owner who presumably raped his mother, Washington says, “I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time” (Washington 1345). This statement is jarring, not only because of Washington’s position as a former slave, but because holds a fundamental implication that white plantation owners were not responsible for the atrocities they committed against other human beings. In using the word “victim,” Washington argues not only a lack of guilt, but an oppression against white slaveholders. Such an assertion, though perhaps honorable to some on Washington’s part, is highly problematic in that it absolves white Southerners of any guilt in the matter of slavery, and allows those in power to ignore responsibility for their own actions. In doing this, Washington’s argument makes very difficult the fight for justice.
This is not to say that Washington was not an advocate for a reversal of this social injustice. He makes clear that, despite his oddly positive view on his life as a slave, he is in no way a supporter of the institution of slavery, and that finding any African American who was would be virtually impossible. Washington asserts, “I have never seen one who did not want to be free, or one who would return to slavery,” and goes on to say that he “pit[ies] from the bottom of [his] heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery” (Washington 1350). Clearly, Washington has a decidedly negative view on slavery as a whole, and he exhibits throughout this piece that he is an avid supporter of upward mobility for African Americans through education. However, Washington’s envisioned mode of achieving equality is passive to the point of inactivity; he urges his fellow African Americans to simply wait until the time for equality reaches them.
Such an approach is incredibly telling of Washington’s beliefs about society and human nature. Expressed throughout the piece is a sense of positivity and thankfulness toward the people around him. For example, he repeatedly uses the word “privilege” in regards to his experience with General Armstrong, a man who worked at the Hampton Institute during Washington’s time there, and he later asserts that “the part that the Yankee teachers played in the education of the Negroes immediately after the war will make one of the most thrilling parts of the history of this country” (Washington 1359). Remarks such as this illustrate Washington’s inherent tendency toward gratefulness and appreciation of the people with whom he interacts. It is made clear throughout the piece that Washington views his fellow human beings, regardless of race, in a distinctly positive light.
This ability to see and believe the best in people is, in itself, an admirable one; however, the way in which it informs his idea of race relations is deeply misguided. Out of his deep sense of positivity stems Washington’s belief that people are fundamentally good, and that—beyond this—they possess an innate ability to recognize the good in others. Not only does Washington believe that people “lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others” (Washington 1362), he believes firmly that the people around him—specifically, white people in power—will eventually come to this realization without any external pressure to do so. Believing the good in people is of course, in itself, not a flaw, but when applied to the issue of racial oppression, it poses an enormous problem to the advancement for equality. His belief in people’s inherent goodness informs Washington’s passive approach to racism, which he expresses in his Atlanta Exposition Address and which essentially states that African American people ought to wait patiently until justice becomes a reality. “Say what we will,” Washington says, “there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and reward the merit in another, regardless of color or race” (Washington 1371).
This statement is both powerful and deeply persuasive. Yet in arguing this, Washington is inadvertently working to slow the advancement of the people of his own race. His assertion that people need wait found support primarily with whites; even peaceful African American activists found his view hugely problematic. Dr. Martin Luther King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” argues precisely the opposite, exclaiming, that “when you are haunted day and night by the fact that you are a Negro… plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (King 97). Despite the fact that Martin Luther King’s statement is aimed at white clergymen, it seems his argument applies just as clearly to Washington’s assertion. “This ‘wait’” Martin Luther King says, “has almost always meant ‘never’” (King 97). Thus, by King’s logic, Washington instructing his fellow citizens to wait for justice was effectively a request to ask them to ignore the need for justice.
Washington’s decidedly passivity was also criticized heavily by African American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, who, in The Souls of Black Folk, accuses Booker T. Washington of serving as a catalyst in the disenfranchisement and institutional inferiority of blacks in the U.S. through his “old attitude of adjustment and submission,” and his desire to serve as “a compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro” (Du Bois 1385). These assertions are far from inaccurate; Washington’s passive approach appealed largely to white audiences and helped to bridge the gap between justice-seeking African Americans and white citizens who were reluctant at best to extend rights of citizenship to blacks. His position as a former slave who had worked his way up in society led many other members of his race to follow in his example, and thus worked to quiet the collective voice that called out for justice.
Washington’s piece as a whole advocates for the submission of African Americans to the injustices of society on the grounds that, in time, white men will come to recognize the innate value in their fellow citizens regardless of race. He also works to absolve white citizens of their guilt, for he does not simply refer to them as without fault, but as victims—likening their suffering to his as a slave and proposing the belief that slavery is not a product of individual wrongs, but a wrong institution that has forced itself on the Nation as a whole. Overall, his optimistic yet wholly unrealistic perception of society, coupled with his attempts to present white plantation owners as victims of the institution of slavery, ultimately serves to undermine the plight of African Americans during the early 20th century, and serves as an excuse for white citizens to ignore the pressing need for justice in America.
“American Civil War Census Data.” American Civil War Census Data. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
”Booker T. Washington.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Critical Strategies and Great Questions. Saint Mary’s College of California, 2013. 97. Print.
Lemke-Santangelo, G. (2015, November 30). Radical or Congressional Reconstruction 1867-77. Lecture presented at Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga.
Washington, Booker T. “Up From Slavery” Health Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014. 1344-372. Print.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk” Health Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014. 1374-397. Print.