You may have noticed that in his concession speech last night, avowed history buff John McCain made a poignant reference to an event that occurred just about a hundred years ago. On October 16, 1901, President Roosevelt, freshly installed after William McKinley succumbed to an assassin's bullet, did something that to many seemed literally unthinkable -- he invited a black man to dine with him and his family at the White House. "President Roosevelt Proposes to Coddle Descendants of Ham," screamed the headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That man, of course, was Booker T. Washington.
There are a lot of things about this situation that are hard for us to understand today, and the fact that the United States has just elected its first black president drives that fact home. While the assertion that political support for Obama speaks to the achievement of a "post-racial" America is still up for debate, it's hard to deny that today we inhabit a racial landscape that our ancestors simply would not recognize.
The same notion applies in reverse -- can you imagine, for example, a newspaper using the term "descendants of Ham" today? The idea is laughable. But it was real. So were lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and simple, consuming hatred, all the more cruel for its sheer casual pervasiveness. This gap in understanding, Mark Baurlein argued in an article for the Chronicle Review in 2003, is responsible for the eclipse in our respect for a man like Washington, whose tactics look to us rather soft and complacent. "To militants such as Du Bois, and to us today," Bauerlein says, "Washington's accommodationism is an abasement." Du Bois himself had this to say of Washington after his death in 1915: "We must lay on the soul of this man, a heavy responsibility for the consummation of Negro disfranchisement, the decline of the Negro college and public school, and the firmer establishment of color caste in this land." As Bauerlein reports, the man who once commanded the respect of the luminaries of the American intellectual world now barely rates a citation in the scholarly debate on race in America.
The last major biography of Booker T. Washington came out in the 70s -- Louis Harlan's two-volume assessment of the life and times of the man is a great achievement, but it's a study that reflects the negative scholarly consensus of the time. That landscape is about to change a bit with the publication in January of a major new biography of Washington, Robert J. Norrell's Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington. Within, Norrell aims to revise our understanding of the man by re-situating Booker T. in the context of his own time, rather than holding him to the standards of an age that might have made him proud, but which he would hardly recognize. In the excerpt below, from the Prologue, Norrell chronicles the posthumous demonization of Washington by subsequent black leaders and historians, whom, he claims, "should have been alert to the fallacy of anachronism, of applying 1960s expectations of protest to a man who had lived two generations
earlier." Booker T's story, he says, "deserves to be told anew," and with the publication of Up from History in January, this forgotten man will get what Norrell believes to be his due.
From Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell, published in January by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Virtually everyone who came into contact with Booker Washington during his lifetime was curious about, even fascinated with, his personal story, for indeed it was a remarkable saga of movement up from slavery. But hardly was he gone from the scene when the content and meaning of his life became separated from the realities he had lived. The first lost truth was the ugly opposition of southern whites to Washington’s strategy of economic and educational improvement. The violent imaginations of the Vardamans, Tillmans, and Dixons were no longer connected to the black man they hated most during their political activities. Somehow the memory became that Washington was beloved by all whites, mainly because he was friendly to them and gave no offense. He came to be remembered as a great Negro because there were physical reminders of his greatness—the hundreds of segregated schools and other black institutions named for him, the thousands of African-American men who were his namesakes. People assumed that he must have been a great man to have had so many people and things named for him. The fading reality resulted in the common confusion of Washington with the famous horticulturalist on his faculty, George Washington Carver, whose greatness was much easier to explain to subsequent generations. The presence of two famous men from Tuskegee, both bearing the name Washington, often prompted the question about Booker, “Wasn’t he the one who used the peanut in so many ways?”
By the 1960s, among Americans engaged in the struggle for civil rights, there would be no confusion about who Booker Washington was. His memory was invoked almost entirely to justify diverse positions in the newly accelerated struggle for racial justice. Tuskegee whites romanticized the race relations of Booker’s time as pleasant and uncontested in order to condemn the tensions that accompanied the voting-rights challenges—and so forgot the bitter and dangerous times in the town during Washington’s life. Blacks throughout the United States increasingly condemned him as having acquiesced in the racial discrimination that so many were now challenging in restaurants, waiting rooms, and courthouses. They called Washington an Uncle Tom who sold out his own people to secure his power and delay the coming of black freedom. They saw no resemblance between him and the great new leader of American blacks, Martin Luther King Jr., who marched into the face of racial bigotry and then went to jail in protest against injustice. Washington accommodated segregation and discrimination rather than challenged it, they said. Washington’s contemporary and rival Du Bois became the paradigm of that earlier time: Du Bois had openly and continuously condemned the wrongs of the Jim Crow era, while Washington had given away everything in a cowardly effort to get along with vicious whites.
This demonization took place even in Tuskegee. In the mid-1960s students at the Institute challenged older local civil-rights leaders because they were advising blacks to share power with whites as the best means to build a truly democratic community, even though blacks now had enough votes to take every office. In 1966 a student who had grown up in Tuskegee dismissed one leader’s call for moderation by likening him to the most famous local Uncle Tom. The young man had read Invisible Man, the brilliant modernist novel by the former Tuskegee student Ralph Ellison about a young man who goes to a grand, all-black school in the Deep South. Ellison portrays the school’s leaders as harsh and indifferent to students, indeed to all blacks beneath them. The protagonist, the Invisible Man, describes a sculpture depicting the school’s now-dead founder in front of a kneeling slave. Just such a sculpture, Lifting the Veil of Ignorance, has been the focal point of the Tuskegee campus since 1922. The Invisible Man describes the founder’s “hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds about the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”
In 1966 the very visible Tuskegee Institute student angrily declared: “We got this statue out here of that man who’s supposed to be lifting up the veil. Man, he’s putting it back on.” Other interpreters of Booker Washington would take the same stance for at least a generation. John Lewis, the prominent activist from the 1960s who became a high-profile congressman in the 1980s and 1990s, wrote that in his own time Washington had been “ridiculed and vilified by his own people for working so closely with white America.” In fact most of the ridicule and vilification came much later. Either way, the congressman assumed that Washington deserved the opprobrium. The result of the assaults on his reputation during the 1960s, a prominent American historian observed in 2003, was that “the tar brush of Uncle Tomism has stuck to Washington.”
A significant portion of those wielding the brush were historians who should have been alert to the fallacy of anachronism, of applying 1960s expectations of protest to a man who had lived two generations earlier. The scholar celebrated as Washington’s definitive biographer likened him not just to Uncle Tom but also to a minotaur, an amoral and manipulative wizard, and a bargainer with the devil for momentary earthly power. Since the 1960s nearly all other writers have followed that lead in rendering Washington as a villain in African-American history.
This distortion of Washington contributed to a narrowing of the limits Americans have put on black aspirations and accomplishments. After the 1960s, any understanding of the role of black leaders was cast in the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership, with the implication that African Americans can rise in American life only through direct-action protest against the political order. To be sure, that confrontational approach accounted for King’s great success, but as the sole model for group advancement it has not always worked, because it does not apply to all circumstances. Booker Washington’s emphasis on educational, moral, and economic development became a lost artifact for most Americans thinking about how to integrate minorities and any other disadvantaged group in the modern world. This outcome is especially ironic given that in the twentieth century Washington’s ideas inspired and instructed struggling people throughout the Third World. Washington’s style of interracial engagement has been all but forgotten, and when remembered, usually disparaged: he put a premium on finding consensus and empathizing with other groups, and by his example encouraged dominant groups to do the same. He cautioned that when people protest constantly about their mistreatment, they soon get a reputation as complainers, and others stop listening to their grievances. Blacks needed a reputation for being hardworking, intelligent, and patriotic, Washington taught, and not for being aggrieved. The main lesson that people around the world took from Booker Washington was that hope and optimism were crucial ingredients in overcoming the obstacles of past exploitation and present discrimination. Indeed, the ability to imagine a better future was what African Americans needed most in Washington’s time. That may be true at all times, for all people, and yet the dismissal and misapprehensions of Washington’s message have obscured it in the society he worked so hard to improve.
Booker Washington’s response to his circumstances reflected a sophisticated mind that had contrived a complex means for achieving what, by any standard, were high-minded goals. But his was an awful time that set narrow and unjust limits on what he could do to pursue his ends. In Washington’s view, his life was not just a struggle up from slavery but also a great effort to rise above history. Given the fate of his historical reputation, that remains the great challenge of his life, now almost a century after it ended. His story therefore deserves to be told anew.
Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell is copyright © 2009 by Robert J. Norrell and published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.