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Forbes

 

The Resurrection Of Booker T. Washington

February 06, 2009

By Lawrence J. McQuillan

A new biography of the black leader shows he wasn't a sellout.

Booker T. Washington--the prototypical sellout, we are told. Black History 101 pits him against a W.E.B. Du Bois nobly crusading against "the color line" while Washington delighted white backers by telling blacks to be content as disfranchised laborers.

Academics have chiseled this vision of Washington in stone. Louis Harlan's two-volume biography of 1972, especially, has stood as authoritative, having it that "Washington 'jumped Jim Crow' with the skill of long practice, but he seemed to lose sight of the original purposes of his dance."

Robert J. Norrell's Up From History rescues Washington from the most calumnious reputation in black history, revealing him as Race Man extraordinaire. He could break bread with countless black figures today, uplifting their race in full awareness that while protest has borne fruit for black America at certain points, as Norrell puts it, "it is misleading to teach that change is the result exclusively, or even predominantly, of protest."

Washington's basic story alone is hard to square with the sellout analysis. He was born, a slave, to a single mother, into a poverty that made the people in Walker Evans photos look like aristocrats. He made his way 500 miles to Hampton Institute, a black teacher-training school, put himself through by doing menial labor, and made such an impression that he was chosen by the school's head to found a new black school in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1881.

From a field with some shacks on it, Washington built a 2,300-acre campus hosting more than 1,500 students at a time. Tuskegee taught humble blacks who had grown up like him--blinking in the light after emancipation and groaning under the yoke of debt peonage--how to run successful farms and found new black schools. Few could afford tuition, and Washington spent the rest of his life tirelessly traveling the nation seeking funding from white philanthropists.

Some sellout, so far. What rankled some was that Washington thought black sharecroppers would be better off developing their farming and business acumen, able to present themselves as property owners with services whites needed, before seeking the vote and political positions. He became a phenomenon after his speech at the Cotton States Exposition in 1895, where he intoned that "in all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

"Accommodationist"? Indeed. But consumed by, as Harlan put it, "faustian ambition"? That analysis is presentist, as if after Barack Obama's inauguration a few weeks ago, a black leader had told CNN that blacks' ambition should be to huddle in ghettos and work as cashiers.

But in the post-Reconstruction South, no one knew from "post-racial," "diversity," or America "living up to its ideals." A public statement even implying blacks were whites' equals regularly got black people lynched. A critical mass considered Theodore Roosevelt having Washington to dine at the White House morally equivalent to pederasty. Woodrow Wilson, once president of Princeton University, called the film The Birth of a Nation "history written with lightning." An investigative journalist was shocked at white Southerners' obsession--in "daily and hourly discussion"--with keeping blacks "in their place."

So, "separate as the fingers" was hardly an outlandish notion for a black leader in 1895, and in other endeavors Washington was quite the opposite of the cartoon promulgated since. He was in favor of blacks who wanted it having higher education. Norrell brings to light that Washington wrote against lynching, supervised behind-the-scenes efforts against disfranchising blacks, supported train boycotts and fought white nationalists' quest to deny funds for black schools.

Yet Du Bois dismissed him as advocating "non-resistance, giving up agitation and acquiescence in semi-serfdom." It was people of this sentiment who termed Washington's 1895 speech the "Atlanta Compromise" and slurred his diligent endorsements of blacks for political positions, sought from him by Roosevelt and others for years, the operation of a sinister "Tuskegee Machine."

Washington was hemmed in by vicious white nationalists on one side--Exhibit A: Alabama Congressman Tom Heflin, who railed against Washington's black-uplift statements with "We have a way of influencing negroes down here when it becomes necessary"--and a vocal minority of Northern-born, university-educated black writers on the other, who were ignorant of the brutal Southern realities Washington lived and assailed him for not waxing "militant," as it would later be termed.

Their influence was modest; Washington spent excessive energy countering their criticisms by backing friendly black newspapers and spying on the nationalists' meetings. Norrell's coverage of this contingent's witch hunt against Washington, mounting chairs and shouting him down in bitter glee with mocking questions, suggests an almost willful deafness to Washington's actual platform. One senses the precursor to the dashiki politics that would go mainstream 60 years later, longer on theatrics than on constructive intent.

Today, this protest-based ideology seems prescient. But in 1908, Washington's ideology was informed by, for example, a race pogrom in Springfield, Ill., where two black merchants were lynched, rioters sought homes of well-to-do black families to ransack, and the homes of 40 poor black families were destroyed--to the watch cry that "the niggers came to think they were as good as we were!" By this point, Washington himself was traveling with bodyguards because of constant threats on his life by whites.

One of the saddest moments in Washington's story is when the author of the book The Birth of a Nation was based on, Thomas Dixon, roasted him endlessly in the press for wanting social equality by stealth--which is exactly what he wanted: economic power now, political power later. But Washington could say nothing: Shouting "Black Power" would have gotten him nowhere. Washington's was, as Norrell puts it, "the art of the possible."

It was the Springfield episode that sparked the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. However, it took it 50-plus years for its protest model to bear fruit in anything but an incremental way, and even this could not have happened without the technological assistance of television. One wonders, also, whether the writerly contingent so aroused against Washington would have been up for the head-cracking brutality the protesters in Selma and Birmingham underwent to show America the real problem.

Washington was certainly too sanguine in supposing that whites would accept blacks upon seeing them in their Sunday best. However, his example inspired legions of blacks as a guide to making the best of a bad hand. For all of Du Bois' iconic status today, Washington was more popular among blacks during his lifetime and for decades afterward. Thousands of boys were named after him. His name still brands public schools across America. Black people once had pictures of him in their homes in the same way they later had pictures of Martin Luther King Jr, and today have pictures of Barack Obama.

Recently in a Du Bois vs. Washington debate in a class at a Knowledge Is Power Program charter school in New York, in a ghetto neighborhood where almost everybody is black or brown and no one is "bougey" in the least, the Washington fans--from the 'hood, like all the school's students--argued with as much passion as the Du Bois fans. The Washington side won, and Norrell's biography shows us why that shouldn't surprise us in the least.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/2009/02/06/booker-washington-dubois-opinions-bookreviews_0206_john_mcwhorter.html

 

 
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