Blogs > Liberty and Power > Booker T. Washington, Reappraised

Aug 21, 2009 12:22 am

Booker T. Washington, Reappraised

The February 2 issue of the New Yorker features Robert J. Norrell’s new book, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (summary available to non-subscribers). The article by Kelefa Sanneh highlights but also questions Norrell’s reappraisal of the once-idolized black leader.

Norrell challenges the negative images of Washington that have been engrained in the modern mind--one as an “Uncle Tom” compromiser and another as a “cunning and ruthless strategist” (the latter phrase is Sanneh’s, reflecting Louis Harlan’s 1972 portrait). Sanneh says that Norrell describes Washington as “more like a man under siege, projecting strength and flexibility because he knew how precarious his empire was.”

It will be interesting to see if Norrell’s view of Washington as a “heroic failure” gains traction.

Sanneh, for one, never quite accepts that view. He seems to minimize the value of compromise and accommodation, implying that Washington should have acted differently, perhaps more like his rival W. E. B. Du Bois. And Sanneh suggests that Washington had a character flaw that made him act deceptively, including toward fellow blacks (although his five-page article doesn’t list outright deceptions).

I haven’t read Norrell’s book yet, but I did read his 2005 The House I Live In: Race in the American Century, which gives plenty of reasons to believe that Washington’s position was precarious. It underscores the viciousness of race relations in turn-of-the century and early-20th-century America (and not just in the South). Just as Washington was trying to give blacks a blueprint for progress, laws were proliferating that solidified white control, backed by lynchings (nearly 200 a year in the 1890s) and other violent actions.

In that environment, would Washington have been more successful with something other than a strategy of practical education, social separation, and avoidance of politics? And perhaps he was successful, building a foundation (symbolized by Tuskegee Institute) that served blacks well during a time of oppression, even though its philosophy was eventually rejected.

Others who know much more about this than I do are the ones to evaluate Booker T. Washington's successes and failures for the current generation. But that evaluation should, at the least, be based on the environment in which he lived, not on the one we live in today.

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Ralph E. Luker - 2/5/2009

In "the long civil rights movement", Jonathan, BTW was more opponent than advocate.

Jane S. Shaw - 2/5/2009

You make a good point. But I think that you and David agree more than you disagree. He takes a long view of civil rights. In fact, he gave a lecture at several North Carolina colleges on the role that black fraternal societies played in laying a foundation for the civil rights movement in the South. Booker T. Washington surely helped build the foundation of practical education and entrepreneurship.

Jonathan Bean - 2/5/2009

Besides, where did the "DuBois path" end up? He broke with the NAACP, which deserves a lot more credit than it gets, left the country for Africa and became a communist. Needless to say, that was a dead end for black America, even if you find reasons for WEB's personal decisions.

Jonathan Bean - 2/5/2009

I'll deviate from David Beito here:

There is no reason to tie Booker or any one else of that era to the so-called "modern civil rights movement" (what scholars call the "short CRM of 1954-1968"). There was a "long CRM" and Booker was smack in the middle of it. My forthcoming book shows how close he was to Douglass on protest, accommodation, and self-help. Moreover, Booker and DuBois were not the only two in the CRM of the time: Kelly Miller caught the diversity of black thought (and action) perfectly with his "Radicals and Conservatives" essay (1907) and other essays. Who was Miller? The most widely read black writer of the 1920s and 1930s, dean of Howard University, and much more. We need a much more nuanced understanding of where Booker fit. "Civil rights" has been cartooned as just the protest in the streets (something that Thurgood Marshall resented privately).

Ralph Luker - 2/3/2009

David, You might want to flesh out that claim that in the "long term ... sense" "he laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement." On any obvious level, BTW was hostile to the major African-American figures whose claim of ancestry to the modern civil rights movement was much stronger than his.

Jane S. Shaw - 2/2/2009

I'm glad to hear that. I guess I had better read the book. Thanks for your subsequent post.

dbeito - 2/2/2009

Norrell's book is great but I don't accept the view that Washington was a failure. In a long term, he sense he laid the foundation for the modern civil rights movement.