Booker T. Washington was a famous African American educator, leader, speaker and writer. He believed that education was the key to equality for African Americans in American society, more than legal protections or integration.
He founded the Tuskegee Institute to help African Americans get the education he felt was necessary to securing their freedom. He traveled and spoke extensively on the nature of being black in America, and his most famous book, Up From Slavery, details his family’s own story of struggle and success.
He is the first African American to ever appear on a U.S. postage stamp
His perspective is interesting because it speaks to the character and strength to overcome social discrimination, and how that strength then becomes super empowering for African Americans in all other aspects of the personality.
Washington view education as the most important tool for empowering the individual. His love of education came from his childhood experienece, growing up after the Civil War in Virginia.
He saw the thirst for learning on a massive scale, as the emancipated African Americans sought to know more about the larger world around them.
“This experience of a whole race beginning to go to school for the first time, presents one of the most interesting studies that has ever occurred in connection with the development of any race. Few people who were not right in the midst of the scenes can form any exact idea of the intense desire which the people of my race showed for an education. As I have stated, it was a whole race trying to go to school.”
It is hard to imagine millions of people, of all ages and perspectives, seeking education for the first time and at the same time. This wave of curiosity must have been a powerful cultural anomaly, fascinating to see and deeply influential on the psyche.
I recall when I travelled to Africa for the first time and saw this love of learning and eucation. Children were going to school, at a very young age, dressed in uniforms that they wore with extreme pride. They would march smiling off to school, holding hands with their frineds, even if they were teenagers. This conaraderie is touching and uncommon in American school children, who I have found to be famously uninteresting in their schooling, and frequently uninterested in comaraderie of any sort.
These children I saw were lucky to have a uniform, and especially lucky to have a teacher waiting to teach them anything. The opportunity for education was a special one, one that made the students feel chosen and special themselves.
The school they attended wasn’t so special, however. When I saw it for myself I couldn’t believe it. These children were excited and grateful to spen their day inside a school that was nothing more than a shipping container. No windows. One door. No bathroom. no lights. The opportunity to learn in the complany of a teacher was so dificult to come by for them that they were happy to sit in sweltering heat all day and study subject that most American students wouldn’t put down their cell phones to engage.
The obstacles that these African studnets had to overcome to get their education meant that they would take the learning opportunity anyway it was possible.
For Booker T. Washington, the education of the African American was also gained through adversity and the overcoming of difficulty. For him, understanding how this experience impacted the African American student was significant and needed to be considered. The obstacles that African Americans had met and surpassed were not merely physical or social, but mental as well. This is an important factor when considering the success of any student, of course. What does that individual bring with them?
For Booker T. Washington, the large wave of newly freed African Americans seeking education for the first time meant that they brought a collective mental obstacle with them into the classroom.
“The world should not pass judgement upon the Negro, and especially the Negro youth, too quickly or too harshly. The Negro boy has obstacles, discouragements, and temptations to battle that are little known to those not situated as he is. When a white boy undertakes a task, it is taken for granted that he will succeed. On the other hand, people are usually surprised of the Negro boy does not fail. In a word, the Negro youth starts out with the presumption against him.”
This judgement upon African Americans has continued, unfortunately, despite Washington’s warning against it. Today, African Americans are feared by the White majority. African Americans are more likely to become incarcerated, suffer higher unemployment, and have a lower life expectancy than other Americans with similar socio-economic circumstances.
Washington believed that individual merit and hard work could overcome the racial imbalances of a White Supremacy state.
The Brookings Institution reported on the judgements against African American students recently, noting the higher suspension rates imposed upon this group:
In 2015, the statewide African-American suspension rate was 17.8 percent, meaning 17.8 suspensions of African-Americans occurred for every 100 African-American students enrolled. The figure for Hispanics was 5.2 percent, for whites, 4.4 percent, and for Asians, 1.2 percent.
Source: Racial Disparities in School Suspensions, Brookings Institution, 2017.
Interestingly, however, Washington did not make the obstacles of race a reason for failure. In many ways his perspective was that of others we see in history regarding the plight of American Americans. Washington believed that individual merit and hard work could overcome the racial imbalances of a White Supremacy state. This is an argument for which strong evidence can be offered on all sides, both for and against the premise.
He was not dismissive of the negative ancestry of white oppression. He believed that the impact of slavery was long lasting and needed to be considered when trying to understand the plight of a people rising from nothing.
“The influence of ancestry, however, is important in helping move forward any individual or race, if too much reliance is not placed upon it. Those who constantly direct attention to the Negro youth’s moral weaknesses, and compare his advancement with that of white youths, do not consider the influence of memories which cling about the old family homesteads.
The very fact that the white is conscious of that, if he fails in life, he will disgrace his whole family record, extending back through many generations, is of tremendous value in helping him resist temptation. The fact that the individual has behind and surrounding him proud family history and connection serves as a stimulus to help him to overcome obstacles when striving for success.”
Washington is not dismissing or relying on black ancestry for the plight of African Americans. He is acknowledging that it does matter. He is also accepting that it can impede. Washington, mindful of history, does not let it define him or other African Americans. He asserts that the past is to be remembered, and to be taken into account. It is also not be be a chin to hold one down or to hold against someone else.
It is a nuanced argument, to be sure. It is an important argument also. Today many white Americans would dismiss the plight of African Americans. asserting that equality is the way of the American landscape. This is far from reality, but it is reality in the minds of white Americans, sadly.
In contrast, Booker T. Washington would counter that the equality is not the proper focus. Rather it is the grit which we should pause to consider.
“I have learned that success is to be measured not by the position that one has reached in life as buy those obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.
Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reach the conclusion that often the Negro boy’s birth and connection to an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned.
With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition.
But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.”
Washington promoted awareness of the struggle as something that reveals the character of African Americans, and which should be respected by white Americans who did not ever overcome similar obstacles.
This call for appreciation is often met with apathy or even hostility today. Athletes who kneel in solidarity with African American civil rights are called insulting names by the President.
Booker T. Washington, who was once invited to be the first African American to dine at the White House, would disagree. It seems apparent from his teachings that appreciation of the obstacles that African Americans have faced gives their achievements even greater weight. The refusal to see this is simply evidence of white privilege, continuing to see a reality not based upon truth, but an imagined world inhabited by no one.