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“Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington Analysis


The life of Booker T. Washington can very well serve as the proof to the idea that it is namely the strength of one’s determination and his or her industriousness, which define such individual’s chances to attain social prominence, even in society hampered by racial prejudices. Therefore, Washington’s autobiographical book “Up from Slavery” is best referred to as literary work of great practical value, because it provides readers with insight on how they should address various challenges, which they may encounter throughout their lives.

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Again and again, throughout his book, Washington emphasizes the fact that it is people’s existential integrity, which truly counts, regardless of these people’s racial affiliation. In its turn, this allows us to refer to the following quotation from “Up from Slavery” as such that represents the philosophical quintessence of Washington’s book: “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race” (Washington, 1901, Ch. X).

The validity of such an idea remains unchallenged even today, even though neo-Liberal politicians have succeeded in convincing many citizens to be fully preoccupied with “exploring their racial uniqueness”, as some form of existential fetish, on their part. In its turn, this explains why many racially conscious Black-Americans tend to criticize Washington’s book for its apparent lack of political sounding – they refer to the author as not being politically active enough, which in their eyes, deems him as defeatist.

We cannot agree with such a point of view, because Washington’s apoliticism stems out of the author’s acute understanding of the very essence of socio-political processes as being objective – it is not politics that define socio-political reality but vice versa. As the author had rightly suggested: “Political activity alone cannot make a man free. Back of the ballot, he must have property, industry, skill, economy, intelligence, and character” (Washington, 1901, Ch. XIII).

There is only one thing that allowed Washington to rise from slave to a teacher – a possession of education, on his part. He credits it with everything and rightly suggests that Black people need to raise their educational level first, for them to become competitive with Whites. Washington wanted to convince his readers that they have to be genuinely interested in acquiring knowledge and that they must never pass any opportunity to learn more.

Moreover, as a truly progressive individual, the author never ceased insisting that the educational process should be associated with the concept of “understanding”, as opposed to the concept of mechanistic “memorizing”: “The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women. Instead of studying books so constantly, how I wish that our schools and colleges might learn to study men and things” (Washington, 1901, Ch. III).

Nowadays, Booker T. Washington is being often criticized for being too soft on White practitioners of slavery, but this is far from being the truth. While acting like a real man, in the true sense of this word, Washington always had a strong distaste for whining about society’s wickedness, as something that had prevented him from realizing his dreams. In this respect, Washington’s worldview can be compared to the worldview of Jack London, known for his acute sense of perceptional stoicism. Just as London, Washington was an ardent believer in the Nietzschean idea that whatever does not kill us, makes us stronger.

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It is namely due to its stoic attitudes that Washington used to take pride in the color of his skin: “Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reached the conclusion that often the Negro boy’s birth and connection with 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” (Washington, 1901, Ch. II). In its turn, this allows us to refer to Washington’s autobiographical; book as representing a great philosophical value because it helps readers to get a better understanding of what counts in one’s life. In this paper, we will aim at exploring this thesis to a further extent.


Many today’s historians refer to the Reconstruction Period in America’s South as being the lowest point in the history of Black Americans, even though this period followed the abolition of slavery. Whereas, before the Civil War, South’s Blacks were simply utilized as slave labor-force, without White slave owners bothering to ideologically substantiate their existential supremacy, after the abolition of slavery, many Whites had made a point in treating Blacks as slaves de facto, as if they were deriving as sadistic pleasure out of the process. Most events described in “Up from Slavery”, take place during this period.

Thus, Washington’s book can be thought of as a first-hand account of how Black Americans proceeded with their lives in a time when racist hysteria in the South was beginning to gain momentum. However, even though the author had all the rights to do so, he strived not to be focused on negativity, which is the reason why Washington’s book contains only a few references to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, even though that it is namely during the period of Reconstruction that this racist organization has gained public notoriety.

Just as a truly forgiving individual, Washington simply expresses his sorry over the fact that many White Southerners had allied themselves with Ku Klux Klan, thus creating preconditions for the Reconstruction period in the South to be associated mainly with the rise of white racism, as opposed to what the term reconstruction stands for: “It seemed to me as I watched this struggle between members of the two races, that there was no hope for our people in this country.

The “Ku Klux” period was, I think, the darkest part of the Reconstruction days” (Washington, 1901, Ch. IV). Nevertheless, holding a grudge against racially intolerant Whites was the last thing of Washington’s mind, as he understood that Southerners’ racism could be partially explained by the fact that, after the end of the Civil War, they realized themselves as being the members of a disadvantaged social group.

Even though that in his book author does not state it explicitly, he nevertheless implies that the anti-slavery stance, on the part of invading Yankees, was meant to be utilized mostly for propaganda purposes, with the majority of

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Northern abolitionists not being truly concerned with Black Americans’ actual well-being. This is the reason why “Up from Slavery” contains many accounts of former slaves trying to help their former owner’s Southern spiritual values have been shared by Blacks as much as they have been shared by Whites: “As a rule, not only did the members of my race entertain no feelings of bitterness against the whites before and during the war but there are many instances of Negroes tenderly carrying for their former masters and mistresses who for some reason have become poor and dependent since the war” (Washington, 1901, Ch. I).

Thus, we can say that in his book, Washington had proven himself not only as a progressive political activist and thinker but also as a supreme psychologist, as he appears to be well aware of the variety of subconscious motivations that prompt people to act in one way or another. While understanding the importance of a race, the author is far from idealizing just about anyone’s racial affiliation, including his own: “I saw colored men who were members of the state legislatures, and county officers, who, in some cases, could not read or write, and whose morals were as weak as their education” (Washington, 1901, Ch. II).

There can be no doubt that Washington believed in the ideals of social equality – that is, citizens born in this country should be given an equal opportunity to advance in life. At the same time, the author knew perfectly well that equality could not be enforced: “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing” (Washington, 1901, Ch. XIV). We can only speculate as to what would happen to Washington, had he articulated such his idea publicly today – the chances are that the hawks of political correctness would accuse him of “inciting hate”.

Not many Americans have happened to read “Up from Slavery”, because otherwise, they would not be referring to the author as “civil rights activist”, in the contemporary sense of this word, simply because Washington never believed that civil freedoms can be granted, but only taken. Thus, Washington’s ideas correspond more to the ideas of Malcolm X, than to the ideas of Martin Luther King, even though that Washington never promoted violence.

According to Washington, the coexistence of representatives of different races, within a particular society, can only be mutually beneficial, for as long as people associate such coexistence with their immediate practical agendas. The author knew that in American society, the issue of racism only serves as a cover for a much more troubling issue of classism. Rich people can talk all they want about morality, law, and order, but only the thing they are genuinely being interested in protecting, even at the price of risking their lives, is their material riches.

The validity of this thesis is being best illustrated today – the problem of racism in contemporary America can be compared to a skin rash: the more it is being scratched, the more it itches. Yet, media and “progressive” politicians try their best not to bring people’s attention to the issue that matters – the increasingly widening gap between America’s poor and rich.

However, it would be wrong to refer to Booker T. Washington as an advocate of a welfare state. Quite contrary – while being an ardent promoter of the concept of people’s social equality, he nevertheless strongly opposed the idea that it is solely up to the government to assure citizens’ economic welfare: “Among a large class there seemed to be a dependence upon the Government for every conceivable thing.

The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves but wanted the Federal officials to create one for them” (Washington, 1901, Ch. V). While reading these lines, it is quite impossible to get rid of an impression that they were being written today, when crazed advocates of the welfare state have succeeded in convincing many Americans that there is no need for them to work, for as long as they are willing to “celebrate diversity”, as their full-time occupation.

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Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that in his book author glorifies physical labor. It is namely the fact that ever since his early days Washington had to work hard, to make living, which deprived him of any illusions as to the possibility of individual’s worth being solely related to his or her willingness to indulge in physical labor, without striving to expand its intellectual horizons.

It needs to be noticed that Washington’s initial association with such labor did not cause him to become a Commie, who idealizes such labor above anything else, as some form of fetish. And the reason for this is simple – as practice shows, the most famous Commies, known for their dedication to “workers’ cause”, have never held in their hands anything heavier than a pencil.

Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, had a practical knowledge of what the concept of physical labor stands for, as opposed to a purely theoretical one. This is the reason why the author never considered “class solidarity” as an objective socio-political phenomenon. As a true intellectual, he knew that only education has a value of a “thing in itself”, which is why he never ceased promoting the process of acquiring knowledge as only the worthy existential pursuit: “Education is not a thing apart from life – not a “system,” nor a philosophy; it is direct teaching how to live and how to work” (Washington, 1901, Introduction).

Such an author’s idea can hardly be challenged. It is only educated people who are capable of taking firm control over their lives. It is only educated people who understand the essence of social and political dynamics. It is only educated people who create preconditions for the process of cultural and scientific progress to stay on its natural track. Moreover, it is namely possession of an education that allows individuals to get ahead in life.

In its turn, the process of getting ahead in life is opposed to the concept of “equality”. This is why it is wrong to refer to Booker T. Washington as someone who believed that absolute equality among citizens could ever be reached – the author was far too intelligent to seriously consider such a nonsensical idea. Moreover, he never believed that Whites would ever become African-Americans’ best friends. This, however, does not mean that Americans from different racial and social backgrounds cannot unite while pledging allegiance to the ideals that turned America into the greatest country on Earth – justice and freedom.


Before we conclude this paper, we will need to state once again that the value of “Up from Slavery” can hardly be overestimated – this book contains answers to just about any questions of social importance, which remain fully valid even today, even though Washington’s book was written at the beginning of 20th century. It is namely due to this fact that Booker T. Washington is being rightly considered as one of American greatest writers and educators.


Booker T. Washington. Up from Slavery. Project Guttenberg Ebook. [1901] 2000. Web.

David Sehat. The Civilizing Mission of Booker T. Washington. 2007. Bnet. Web.

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