Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book Review: A Booker T. Washington Rerelease

The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race From Slavery
by Booker T. Washington
First published in 1909
Rereleased 2007 by Nonsuch Publishing, 413 pp., $29.95

I began reading Booker T. Washington's The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race From Slavery late in October 2008, and the read took on a distinctly different feel after November 4, once Barack Obama had become the U.S. president elect.

In Washington's opening pages, first published in 1909, he wrote, "I have never thought or said that the Negro in America was all that he should be. It does seem to me, however, that the Negro in the United States has done, on the whole, as well as he was able, and as well as, under the circumstances, could be reasonably expected." Later, citing the challenges of African Americans then only recently emancipated, he added, "… it is a disadvantage to him that his progress is constantly compared to the progress of a people who have had the advantage of many centuries of civilization, while the Negro has only a little more than forty years as a free man."

Now an additional 100 years has passed since the ratification of the 13th Amendment, and the first African American is poised to change his address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — an event that gives the 2007 rerelease of The Story of the Negro by England-based Nonsuch Publishing a whole new perspective.

First published a scant four decades after slavery was abolished in the United States, the 413-page book was written by Washington at the height of his national prominence. He became the first president of Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (now Tuskegee University) in 1881, holding that post until his death in 1915 at the age of 59. While there, he was visited by President William McKinley; and in 1901, he was invited to the White House when Theodore Roosevelt extended him a dinner invitation. A hue and cry went up in the South and the North when word spread about the dinner, with outraged several letters to the editor reaching the stalwart New York Times. (Listen to NPR's December 26 story on Washington's trip to the White House.)

Yet Washington's emphasis on gaining equality through education, hard work, and thrift, brought him into conflict with W.E.B. DuBois who dubbed him "The Great Compromiser" because he didn't advocate for a direct approach to end racial injustice. Washington also disagreed with Du Bois over the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Indeed, instead of attempting a full-court press to combat widespread racial inequality, Washington cultivated relationships with wealthy white movers and shakers as a way to gain influence and make changes.

Through The Story of the Negro, in fact, Washington carefully details the black experience — well before, during, and after the Civil War — like the academician he was. With systematic and scientific care, Washington traced the African roots of blacks in America, examined the slave traders' voyages, wrote about life on plantations, slave revolts, the Underground Railroad, the first decades after the Civil War, and the early 20th-century black professionals. Virtually no stone is left unturned.

In the end, Washington lobbied for what could be considered a precursor to Dr. John Perkins' call to reconciliation through, in part, community development. From Washington’s vantage as one of the last African-American leaders born into slavery, and recognizing the connection of African Americans to all Americans, he wrote, "In freedom the security and happiness of each race depends, to a very large extent, on the education and progress of the other. The problem of slavery was to keep the Negro down; the problem of freedom is to raise him up." I think Obama would make Washington proud. DuBois, too.

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