Raymond W. Smock, Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee publisher, 2009) 210 pages.
RETHINKING THE ROLE OF BOOKER T WASHINGTON IN BLACK LIBERATION
Book Review by Ozodi Thomas Osuji
Yesterday, I read a biography of Booker T Washington by Dr. Raymond W. Smock. This reading gave me an opportunity to rethink what I had thought about Mr. Washington. Before I embark on telling you what I now think of Mr. Washington let me briefly summarize this brief 210 pages book.
Booker was born in 1856 in Franklin County, Virginia, USA. His mother was an African slave (since most slaves in Virginia were Igbo she was probably Igbo) and his father was unknown. It was suspected that his father was one of the white lads that worked in a neighboring farm. His mother worked primarily as a cook for a white family on their two hundred acres farm. The white family owned other slaves. Booker had other siblings from different fathers.
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party won the Presidential election on an anti slavery platform. Southern states fearing that President Lincoln would emancipate their slaves declared their secession from the Union and the Civil war began. In 1863 Lincoln proclaimed the emancipation of slaves and at the end of the war Congress formalized it in the thirteenth and fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Thus, Booker, his mother and siblings were freed from slavery. So now what to do? The mother joined a boy friend, Washington Ferguson, at a town called Malden. The boy friend worked in a salt mine. Booker had no last name and probably took the man's first name as his last name hence Booker T. Washington (or took the name of the first President of the United States, Washington, as many slaves did). In the meantime, the eleven year old Booker was sent to the salt mines to work along with adults. This was backbreaking work and he could not handle it. His mother got him another job as a houseboy in a white family. The family demanded disciplined work, but the job was such that Booker could still have time to read and he registered at a freedman's school.
In 1872, at age sixteen, Booker decided to attend secondary school and went to Hampton, Virginia where he registered at the Hampton Institute (a secondary school run by the American Missionary Association, AMA; the principal was a thirty three year old Ex-Civil War General, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Upon graduation he returned to Malden to teach at an elementary school.
In the meantime, folks at Tuskegee, Alabama decided to start their own secondary school called Tuskegee Institute and requested that the Principal of Hampton Institute, General Armstrong, recommend a Principal for their school. They were expecting a white man, as Mr. Armstrong was. Instead, General Armstrong recommended his ex-star student, Booker, as the principal. Thus, Booker arrived at Tuskegee, Alabama to start his new job. He found that there was no building or students and that he was supposed to start the whole thing. He recruited students and they raised some money and with it began constructing the school's first building on a 100 acre farm. Booker began the school from scratch and modeled it after his alma mater, Hampton Institute. He hired some of his teachers from Hampton Institute. His philosophy was pretty much what he learned from Hampton.
General Armstrong and the American Missionary Association that started Hampton Institute assumed that black folk were primitive and needed to be civilized, that is, made white like. In their view, to be civilized was to operate from white culture. Booker internalized this value and saw black folk as primitive and saw his mission as one of civilizing black folk, making them like white folk. Tuskegee Institute had the mission of civilizing black folk, making them white like in manners. The more they approximated white folk behaviors the more they were civilized. Thus, the students dressed like white folks, spoke like white folk and generally imitated white folk in every which way was possible other than change their skin color (and they would have done that if it were possible to do so!). Booker was convinced that black folk were primitive. Indeed, he saw Africans in Africa itself as savages and reminded his students not to behave like African savages; he told them that they were fortunate not to be in Africa and be savages; to be in America, that is, to be close to white folk, was, to him, to be civilized! Clearly, Booker preferred light skinned blacks and his three wives were all mulattoes like himself. The whiter a black person was the more Booker accepted him as civilized. Most of his teachers were light skinned black folk( in slave times light skinned blacks, called house niggers, worked in the master's house and dark skinned blacks, called field niggers, worked in the field).
Booker tried very hard to accommodate the post Reconstruction Era white backlash against what they called "uppity niggers" who did not know their place as second class citizens. The Yankees (the Northern white folk that won the Civil War) had tried to equalize situation for black and whites in the South but white southerners reacted by forming organizations like the Ku Klaus Klan and used them to intimidate black folk into accepting second class status. Blacks who talked about racial equality were lynched, killed by white mobs led by the hooded Klan's men. Booker tried to accommodate racist whites by telling them that he is not offering blacks liberal arts education so that they would have the knowledge to challenge white folk but that he was offering them industrial education (in the trades, such as carpentry, agriculture, chefs etc) so that they would obtain jobs and not become idle and, as such, do what "niggers do", steal too much (he fully accepted the idea that "niggers steal too much"). Booker's philosophy was articulated in a speech he gave at the Atlanta Trade Exposition in1885. In that now famous speech he told white folks that he did not want black folk to compete with them as equals but to make them sufficiently trained to obtain menial jobs and not be social nuisance.
Clearly, Booker wanted to accommodate white racism. Other black folk tried to teach equality. W. E. B. Dubois, who, like Booker, was also a mulatto, preached racial equality. Booker resented him for he thought that such teaching would bring about the killing of black folk by racist white folk. Booker did everything in his power to destroy Dubois. It was a vicious struggle; he even sent spies to spy on what Dubois and like minded persons were doing and reported them to his white masters (those who gave him the money to run his school) and had the white yellow press spread rumors about them fraternizing with white women (he did this knowing that that would annoy whites and bring about their attack on the uppity niggers). This man went out of his way to destroy his fellow blacks!
As these things always work out (we reap as we sow), while visiting New York, a white man thought that Booker was looking at his wife with sexual lust in his eyes and beat him up. Not satisfied with beating the Uncle Tom, the white man, Mr. Ulrich, called the police and had Booker arrested and jailed for messing with a white woman, thus breaking the cardinal rule of Jim Crow laws, that black men not even look at white women, what more have sex with them (the later brought about their lynching). Booker was arrested and jailed. The white man, of course, was acquitted of beating a nigger. But that humiliating episode did not teach Booker a lesson and he continued to oppose any effort to make blacks the equal of whites.
In 1903 W.E. B. Dubois wrote his seminal book, the Soul of Negro Soul (two souls in one body, one Negro the other American). This book made him popular. Around 1906 Dubois and like minded persons started the Niagara movement; that movement eventually became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, and Dubois became one its ideas' men (as the editor of its magazine, Crisis). The NAACP, formed in 1909, the same year that the ANC was formed in South Africa, eventually replaced Booker's arrangement with white folk and struggled for racial equality in America. Booker died in 1915 still fighting to keep blacks in their second class status in America.
The above is a bare bones summary of Dr Smock's excellent biography of Booker T. Washington. The biography did not change my perception of Booker T. Washington as an Uncle Tom. Like most blacks of my generation I hated Booker with venom. To me, he was an appeaser, a bloody coward. However, reading this book has led me to reappraise Booker! He still remains who he was, a compromiser, not a challenger of the white establishment. Clearly, Booker was a fearful man; he accepted the second class social status that white racists had assigned to him and his people; he accepted his personal inferiority and the inferiority of black folk; he equated superiority with white folk and wanted to make himself and his black folk be like the allegedly superior white folk. He pleased white folk and lived in abject fear of them being angry at him. Simply stated, this man was a man who accepted the racist philosophy of his time.
However, I have come to understand that his personality was not formed in a vacuum. Personality is influenced by the individual's inherited body, and by his physical and social environment. Clearly, the social environment in which Booker lived made him to internalize the racist philosophy that black folk are inferior. (Dubois lived in the North where racism was a bit more benign and therefore did not become socialized to the notion of black inferiority). Environment does play a role in the formation of human personality; to understand a person you have to understand his environment.
In this light, judging Booker with abstract ideal standards of ideal personality and ideal behavior is really childish. As it were, I was childish when in the past I judged him an Uncle Tom and dismissed him as irrelevant in the struggle for black liberation. I tended to admire more aggressive challengers of the racist establishment such as Dubois (and the militant but, unfortunately, ill educated Marcus Garvey). Perhaps, if I lived during Booker's time I would have done what he did? He lived in Virginia. Most slaves in Virginia were Igbos. He was probably half Igbo. Igbos tend to be invested in imitating so-called achieving persons; they over admire those they perceive as successful persons. One can therefore see this probable Igbo man called Booker T Washington perceiving white folk as successful and civilized persons and wanting to be like them. In the contemporary world, Igbos have the irritating habit of imitating white folk; indeed, some of them these days deny their Africanness and claim to be Jews; that is, see themselves as whites hence civilized. Igbos unconsciously and consciously see themselves and Africans as uncivilized and hate themselves for it and want to become like whites, who, in their childish minds, are civilized. Igbos tend to excel in their efforts to imitate white folk and, as expected, tend not to become fighters of racism. The Igbo race has not produced one anti racist of note (Nnamdi Azikiwe, for all his noise making, was a petty bourgeoisie who was over impressed by white civilization and wanted to be like them; Azikiwe was not in the ranks of such giants as Kwame Nkrumah, folk who had well developed anti colonial philosophies!)
The relevant point is that I should not judge Booker with abstract ideal standards; I should merely observe what he did. To judge with imaginary ideal standards is really making noise; nothing is accomplished by that behavior; it is like ones mind is blank, doing nothing; only empiricism accomplishes useful ends. As a grown up, I must observe the real world as it is without seeing it as either good or bad. I must see Africans as they are without castigating them as uncivilized in light of external standards of civilization (usually white standards). I should accept what is as it is, not what could become (ideal). In effect, I should be a social scientist not a moralist, not a neurotic questing after imaginary ideals and using them to make life difficult for real people.
Booker was a product of his times and did what he did to survive. I still do not like what he did; I still prefer Dubois' approach but then again Dubois was a product of a different environment. Booker lived in the Southern USA where racist whites lynched uppity niggers and he lived in total fear for his life. Because he lived in fear he did not live fully. The real question is how to make black folk like Booker to discard the fear that holds them down, how to make them courageous, hence live life fully. When folk live without inordinate fear they tend to actualize what Abraham Maslow call their potential. Fear prevents folk, white and black, from self actualization.
As Booker correctly perceived, white folk are ahead of black folk in material culture, in science and technological advancement. However, that does not mean that black folk are inferior to white folk. All people are the same and are coequal. The goal is to make blacks and Africans as developed as the other races of mankind without seeing them as inferior folk, as Booker did. Africans are not inferior to other races but they are materially backward and need to become as advanced as the other races. Booker's problem was that he equated white material advancement with superiority and black folk's obvious backwardness with inferiority. He is to be understood and forgiven for his shortsightedness; after all he had only secondary school level education (that probably was not enough to equip him to understand things at a higher level). I am saying that I now forgive Booker his philosophy but do not encourage that philosophy at all.
In the end, Booker T. Washington had a fearful personality (In DSM IV nosological categories, he probably had obsessive-compulsive personality disorder with the features of dependent and avoidant and passive aggressive personality disorders). He lived in total fear of white folks and did not make any effort to overcome the fear that held him down. All his life he lived in fear; he anticipated what could happen and harm him and his people and exaggerated their dangers. Anticipatory anxiety paralyzed him. Fear aroused his body and made him tense. What he did not realize was that even if what fear anticipates happened, whites attacked him, as it sometimes happened, he and his people would still survive. It is silly to immobilize ones self with anticipatory fear, for even if what one fears happens the world would not end and one would not die. Here is a fatalistic philosophy that Booker could have benefited from: what will happen will happen to one so why fear it; let it happen and cope with it without paralyzing yourself with anticipatory fear. Living in ego fear is hellish, is hell on earth. Booker lived in inordinate fear hence lived a hellish existence. The goal is to help those who like him live in the hell of fear to live fearlessly. To live fearlessly is to be peaceful and happy. Booker did not know a moment of peace and joy in his fearful existence. This is a pity. My goal is to help people like him to overcome their fear, not to crucify them, as I crucified Booker in the past.
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
July 31, 2009