“The Atlanta Exposition Address” by Booker T. Washington

The speech given by Booker T. Washington on September 18, 1895 in Atlanta, Georgia, became one of the most influential and meaningful speeches in the history of America (Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech, par. 1). Nowadays the speech is seen from many various perspectives, this is why many different opinions are being formed about its contents and meaning. It has to be mentioned that Booker T. Washington was performing his speech in front of a diverse audience consisting of former Confederates, black people, white people, and former soldiers of the Union. Therefore, he had to speak in a manner that would not offend any of these groups of people, which was quite a difficult task.

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The speech is known for several very interesting similes and passages that are still being quoted and argued about. One of such phrases is Booker T. Washington’s explanation that the black population of the United States has to live “by the productions of their hands” (par. 6). This passage could be understood from two different points of view. There is an opinion that Booker T. Washington was trying to emphasize the importance of simple labor for black people, he said that there is “as much dignity in tilling a field, as in writing a poem”, meaning that black people had to learn how to work for own prosperity and create own achievements, and that they should not view the hard labor as another attempt to enslave them.

On the other hand, this explanation could be seen as a verbal expression of limitations for the black people, as if they were not meant for any noble professions or intellectual work. Equality should mean that black people would to be given an access to all spheres of life and all kinds of work, yet the Compromise between black and white people of South stated that the blacks will be given only basic education in order to be able to do hard and cheap work.

Another line from Booker T. Washington’s speech that attracted a lot of attention is the so-called “Bucket motif”. The exact line from the speech says “cast down the bucket where you are” (Washington, par. 7). This line can be viewed in two different ways. From the perspective of white listeners, especially the ones representing Northern employers, the line meant that they had many potential workers and resources among the black population, so instead of hiring white immigrants they should have considered an opportunity of hiring black people, who were also in need for jobs.

From the point of view of the black people the “Bucket motif” meant that they should focus on raising their own quality of life by themselves, making connections, creating friendships, building relationships helping them fit into the surrounding society and function as its useful and worthy members. Several times in his speech Booker T. Washington mentions the devotion of black people to their white neighbors. This proves that the mental state of being slaves was not totally gone from the minds of the black people and to a big extent they still saw themselves as servants, helpers or suitors, but not as independent respectable people.

One more disputable part of “the Atlanta Exposition Address” is a well known “Hand simile”. According to Booker T. Washington, black and white people of the United States of America can be “as separate as fingers, yet one as the hand” (par. 7). This line can be viewed as a noble metaphor, designed to emphasize the unity between all people of America, common goals and dreams, friendship and fellowship.

The “Hand simile” presents the American society as a diverse mixture of many different groups of people working together for the better future for the whole country. On the other hand, the part that says “separate as fingers” can be seen as an expression of ultimate segregation between the representatives of the two races. This point of view reads Booker. T. Washington’s words as a proclamation of the fact that even though the slaves were freed, they are still not viewed as equal members of the society, and most likely, never will be. Instead, they will be seen as a separate group, too “different” to be viewed as equals. This simile may be read as a statement that the black population in the United States will be always referred to as “the others”.

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In his speech Booker T. Washington was addressing the society of the United States on behalf of all black people; his noble attempt to announce first steps towards the friendship between the black and white people has definitely fulfilled its purpose. The fact that the black speaker has appeared on the event held in the South of America was controversial, yet helpful to lay the ground for the partnership and equality between the two races. Washington believed that through hard work and patience black people of the United States could work their way in the society from the bottom to top (Atlanta Exposition Speech of 1895, par. 1).

Works Cited

Atlanta Exposition Speech of 1985. DuBiosopedia. n. d. Web.

Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech. History Matters. n. d. Web.

Washington, Booker, T. The Atlanta Exposition Address. 2014. Web.

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