Sunday, July 22, 2018

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery


Opening Passages: From Douglass's Narrative:

I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday....

From Washington's Up from Slavery:

I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and sometime. as nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale's Ford, and the year swas 1858 or 1859. I do not know the month or the day. The earliest impressions I can now recall are of the plantation and the slave quarters--the latter being the part of plantation where the slaves had their cabins.

Summary: The tale laid out in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a tale of education. Slaves are people who are denied truth in an often explicit attempt to degrade their humanity; they cannot speak honestly and they are allowed to learn nothing but what will keep them in chains. Douglass first gets his glimpse of "the pathway from slavery to freedom" when his master, Mr. Auld, lectures his wife on why she should stop teaching the young Douglass how to read: denying that education was part of how slaves were kept in line. Douglass thence set out to learn how to read, coming up with often ingenious solutions to do so. But reading alone was not the end of it; in teaching himself to read, Douglass was setting out on an ever-deepening to journey to unravel the central problem of slavery: what gave white men the power to enslave black men? Understanding that was indeed the path from slavery to freedom for Douglass, and would become the heart of his abolition work when free.

Up from Slavery is also about education. Washington, freed at an early age by the Emancipation Proclamation, goes to the Hampton Institute to study and thence is put in charge of the Tuskegee Institute. Starting with almost nothing -- there was some money appropriated by the legislature, but it could only be used for salaries, not buildings or supplies, of which there was none -- he built up the Institute into a major educational hub. (Hence the epithet often given to him, The Wizard of Tuskegee.)

One thing on which Douglass and Washington both agree is that there is no freedom without labor, both of mind and of body. Douglass has a very famous speech, "Self-Made Men", in which he makes the point vividly:

The lesson taught at this point by human experience is simply this, that the man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down. This rule may appear somewhat harsh, but in its general application and operation it is wise, just and beneficent. I know of no other rule which can be substituted for it without bringing social chaos. Personal independence is a virtue and it is the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood. But there can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed. It must be developed from within.

The major steps to freedom for Douglass were to find ways to be educated in reading, to push back rather than to give in, and, when the opportunity arose, to escape to freedom and do what he needed to do to survive in it. Freedom is not just given to us; it is especially not given to slaves, who are stripped of the kind of power that makes it possible; it must be built for oneself, or it will not really be had. And Washington has much the same view; as he says, "Nothing ever comes to me, that is worth having, except as the result of hard work." A result of this is that both of them see the primary problem in racial relations as being a lack of fair play; freedom must be built, and cannnot be merely given, so the primary thing to do is to let it be built. The actual building can only be done by education and hard work, and freedom can only be built by those who are to have it.

Washington in particular has taken a lot of beating over the years for his statement of this idea in the Atlanta Exposition Address (discussed in Chapter XIV of Up from Slavery), which was originally generally hailed as a step forward, but eventually became criticized as the 'Atlanta Compromise', with Washington himself labeled, by W.E.B. Du Bois and others, as 'the Great Accommodator'. This comes in part of over-interpreting a particular statement in the Address:

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest 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. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercises of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

To this day, you can find people treating the Atlanta Exposition Address as a statement that blacks will not agitate for voting rights or push back against racist activity, and would limit their participation in society to ways congenial to the lifestyle of whites. This is not only inconsistent with Washington's own views as stated elsewhere, it misses the point entirely of the Address, which is, again, that freedoms must be built step-by-step through hard work and cannot merely pushed into place by "artificial forcing" (terms that he elsewhere associates with Reconstruction policies). My suspicion (I should say it is just a suspicion, and not any sort of rigorous account) is that Du Bois's eventual reaction against Washington had less to do with any racial issue than with the fact that Du Bois was a socialist and Washington is about as far from being a socialist as you can possibly get. Both of them essentially agree on matters of race, and, what is more, both of them agree that freedom requires, among other things, an economic foundation for it. But there is no possible way that they could ever agree on the economic foundation.

I knew going in that I would enjoy Douglass's Narrative, since I've liked other work by Douglass. I was less sure of what to expect from Up from Slavery, but having read it, I think I do not exaggerate in saying that it is one of the most important works ever written on the philosophy of education. And the scope of what Washington was trying to do was simply astounding. He was not merely trying to build a school; he was trying to seed an entire system of education, building it literally from the bottom up. This is part of the reason why he emphasizes vocational education so much, another thing that has elicited unmerited disdain, particularly from academics. But Washington himself addresses this point explicitly; for him, it is about maintaining the necessary order, not merely in educating oneself but in building an entire system of education:

One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at the time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons. If the man can supply the need for those, then, it will lead eventually to a demand for the first product, and with the demand will come the ability to appreciate it and to profit by it.

And the educational system was itself to be the beating heart of an entire industrial system, self-supporting, self-developing, contributing so much to the "markets of the world" that the ever-growing freedom it would bring to the black community would not depend on good intentions or mere political promises and policies -- it would be something so overwhelming in its practical benefits that no one would dare even try to strip it away. Since I've been thinking a lot about Scotland this summer, what Washington was aiming at reminds me a bit of what happened on a smaller scale to the Scots after the Union: an originally marginal nation that by force of education and practical aims became a significant economic force. And it was all to start with the Tuskegee Institute, an educational institute that Washington explicitly designed to be self-replicating in its effect. It is a breathtaking vision, of immense scope, yet put together with an attention to practical details. I've sometimes noted that one of the reasons for the success of Plato is that he has a talent for philosophizing simultaneously at the level of the argument and at the level of an entire scheme of civilization, whereas the rest of us have to oscillate between the two, if we ever manage to encompass both at all. Washington has interests very different from those of Plato, but he has that rare talent of being able to think of things simultaneously as a solution to an immediate problem and as a component in an entire system of civilization. The best thought on education will inevitably include both. And this easily characterizes Washington's thoughts on education in Up from Slavery, whether one agrees with his emphases and solutions or not.

Favorite Passages: From the Narrative:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom....

From Up from Slavery:

Several of these festivals were held, and quite a little sum of money was raised. A canvass was also made among the people of both races for direct gifts of money, and most of those applied to gave small sums. It was often pathetic to note the gifts of the older coloured people, most of whom had spent their best days in slavery. Sometimes they would give five cents, sometimes twenty-five cents. Sometimes the contribution was a quilt, or a quantity of sugarcane. I recall one old coloured women who was about seventy years of age, who came to see me when we were raising money to pay for the farm. She hobbled into the room where I was, leaning on a cane. She was clad in rags; but they were clean. She said: "Mr. Washin'ton, God knows I spent de bes' days of my life in slavery. God knows I's ignorant an' poor; but," she added, "I knows what you an' Miss Davidson is tryin' to do. I knows you is tryin' to make better men an' better women for de coloured race. I ain't got no money, but I wants you to take dese six eggs, what I's been savin' up, an' I wants you to put dese six eggs into the eddication of dese boys an' gals."

Since the work at Tuskegee started, it has been my privilege to receive many gifts for the benefit of the institution, but never any, I think, that touched me so deeply as this one.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, both; Up from Slavery should in particular be read by anyone with an interest in education.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.