Book Review: Up From Slavery
So today, I finally finished reading “Up from slavery”. Did it make me go “hallelujah”? No. Did it make me feel like I could now go out and change the world? Not particularly. But, that does not take anything away from the inspirational quality of the book.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery. The whole time I was reading the book this fact kept replaying itself in my head. He was born a slave. He had no surname, and some would even argue no “real” name considering that Booker was a nickname. He grew up eating pork fat and cornbread as a daily meal, and considering a tablespoon of molasses on a Sunday as a “treat”. From an early age he worked first in the salt mines of West Virginia, then in the coal mines. He didn’t learn to read except by forcing himself and then finally convincing his father to let him split his time between the mines and the classroom. And by his death he was president of the preeminent African American university in the US.
As much as I don’t agree with a lot of his politics – I do see a discernable apologist thread in his line of thinking – in the context of who he was and what he came from, it would be naive of me to disregard his opinions altogether. The factors of his youth were such a big influence on him and his opinions, and unlike pure “thinkers” who had grown up in the relative freedom in the North, he wore the shoes of slavery and knew very well where they pinched. So in that sense, I think we have to forgive him some of the apologism, because unlike these thinkers, Washington actually had to go back to the South. And what he was trying to build in Tuskegee wasn’t just revolutionary in the sense of being the first higher educational institution dedicated to African American education, but reinforcing the belief in the value of the “black man” as a contributor to the development of the South. He wasn’t just trying to build a school. He was trying to build bridges and rebuild communities. All of this in the shadow of one of the darkest episodes in world History.
In some ways, it’s probably better that Washington didn’t live to see the civil rights era, because I think that would have undermined his whole belief in the slow progression in the realisation of rights. I think that his heart would have broken as the lynching culture took root and it began to seem that the walls between races in the US would never be torn down. It would have threatened his credibility if he had to either abandon his credentials or his personal doctrine, or to stick to it in the face of so much suffering and injustice in the South.
The lesson from Booker T. Washington for me is that actions do in fact speak louder than words. It’s easy to preach freedom and revolution from the comfort of my room in Oxford, but I really love his policy where he says that he would never say anything in the North that he wouldn’t say in the south. That’s really what African thinkers really need to get to grips with. The Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s of this world need to get back to the place where they are backing up their random ideas with actions, and being prepared to lose their lives to stand by their convictions. It also says to me that we need more “homegrown” revolutionaries. We need more people who know where the shoe pinches to stand up and say something. But that’s another story for another day.
The reality, I think, for any revolution, is somewhere in between being prepared to compromise and pull back, and saying “screw it”. Don’t threaten force unless you’re prepared to use it. But don’t use force unless you have to. A revolution made up entirely of thinkers or doers is destined to fail.
All in all, a good read. Now onto Wangari Maathai.