It is considered general knowledge that slavery was one of the biggest struggles this nation faced. However, many forget that the strife did not end when slavery was abolished. Reconstruction laid a heavy hand on this country and nearly tore it apart. Booker T. Washington explains this concept in his famous tree analogy.
“Before our freedom, a giant tree was growing in the garden [slavery], which all considered injurious to the progress of the whole nation. The work to be done was direct and simple-destroy the hurtful tree. The work before us now is not the destruction of a tree, but the growing of one. Slavery presented a problem of destruction; freedom presents one of construction. This requires time, patience, preparation of the soil, watering, pruning, and most careful nursing” (Washington, 50).
Booker T. Washington became a representative of the black population during this turbulent time. However, he was met with much criticism due to his controversial ideas and public speeches. The white citizenry largely appreciated his pacifying tone, but many of the blacks were irritated by the inactive agendum Washington was suggesting. Some of Booker T. Washington”s ideas were practical and worthwhile, however some of his theories contained many contradictions and fallacies. I agree with his ideology to a point, but at certain times, I feel that he is too much of a pacifist.
Washington stressed repeatedly in his speeches the importance of an industrial education. His own contribution to this was the Tuskagee Institute. It taught young blacks a trade that was practical, so they would be able to easily find a job, and begin earning income. Washington”s thought was that an industrial education was far more important than a liberal education. He believed that a liberal education was a waste of time, because there weren”t any immediate benefits, or instantaneous wage earning possibilities.
Washington”s point was that the blacks needed money at once, so they should excel at what they already know. African Americans already had the skills they learned from slavery, which was mostly farming and agriculture. He thought that they should utilize that knowledge in the work force. “…let the Negro begin right where he is by putting the greatest amount of intelligence, of skill, and dignity into the occupations by which he is surrounded” (Washington 42).
Many blacks did not like that suggestion, because they felt that they had been trapped in the agriculture business because of slavery, and they did not want to go back to that way of life. It would mean no change in labor and little chance that the white employer would treat them any better than they had in the past. The ex-slaves wanted experiences in life that they never before had the opportunity to have. They wanted a liberal education, because it had been denied to them in the past. They wanted to rise out of working the fields.
Washington believed in sticking to one thing and excelling at it. He thought that blacks should learn a trade and become the best at it, so there is no room for discrimination.
“Whenever in the South, for example, the Negro is the carpenter, let him realize that he cannot remain the carpenter unless people are sure that no one can excel him as a carpenter. This black carpenter should strive in every way possible to keep himself abreast of the best woodwork done in the world. He should be constantly studying the best journals and books bearing on carpentry. He should watch for every improvement in his line” (Washington 42).
Personally, I think that B.T. Washington was right in aspiring to use the skills one already had, however I don”t think it is right to deny anyone the chance of stepping up and bettering themselves. Washington claims this change will happen, but it will occur gradually. “The second or third generation of this black man”s family need not be carpenters, but can aspire successfully to something higher because the foundation has been laid” (Washington 43). However, the black man, at this time, did not want gradual change. They wanted the change they deserved, and they wanted it right away. In my opinion, Washington”s idea to learn a trade to have an immeidate source of income is a good one. It is practical and promotes a way for blacks to meet financial needs. Nonetheless, it is important to have a well-rounded education if the change for bigger and better places is to ever take place.
Another problem with Washington”s dogma, is that he is lumping all black people into one category. He is assuming that all of the ex-slaves will not mind going back to the same labor force they were in pre-abolishment. That is untrue. Many African-Americans at this time had untapped interests that they wanted to pursue. Many would actually be more talented in other fields. When slavery was abolished, this implied freedom for blacks. Freedom is all about the ability to choose. In taking choices away from the ex-slaves, Washington is stifling independence.
As the representative man of his time, Booker T. Washington made several public speeches. In these orations, it was quite evident that he was aspiring to be as diplomatic as possible. He sought to keep the whites on his side, even amongst the most racially controversial issues. In regarding crime, he not only chastised white people for the heinous hate crimes that were rampant, but he also admonished the black people for their criminal acts.
“…idleness and crime should cease, and that no excuse be given the world to label any large proportion of the race [blacks] as idlers and criminals…bring to punishment those who commit crime, when proper legal procedure is sure…we consider no legal punishment to severe for the wretch of any race who attempts to outrage a woman [lynching]. The lesson for the other portion of the nation to learn is that…the same laws should be made to apply to the Negro and the white man whether it relates to citizenship, the protection of property, the right to labor, or the protection of human life” (Washington 49).
The manner in which Washington addressed the mixed crowd was filled with diplomacy, and therefore, did not anger the white citizens. Booker T. Washington realized that this was intelligent, because he knew that if he aroused the whites, the black population would have a much more difficult time in their rise through reconstruction.
During all his addresses to the public, B. T. Washington stressed economics. He did this to speak to the white population about racial equality in terms that they thought would benefit the entire nation. Racial equality would lead to a better economy, and since the South was almost destitute after the civil war, the Southern whites were willing to listen to anything that would help the financial situation. “It is not only the duty of the Negro to thus put himself in possession, but it is also the plainest duty of the white man…No state can have the highest civilization and prosperity with one-third of its population down. This one-third will prove a constant millstone about the neck of the other two-thirds” (Washington 43).
Economics, Washington also said, would bring about political and racial equality. He argued that once African-Americans obtained money, property, and/or other tangible goods, they would be given more respect, and hence, equality. “…when he [the black man] has paid the cost-paid the price of his freedom-it will appear in the beautiful, well-kept home, In the increasing bank account, in the farm…” (Washington 42).
I don”t agree with B.T.W.”s theory on this. Just because one has material commodities, this does not guarantee them respect or equality of any kind. The white southerners were brought up on racist beliefs. A black man”s wealth will not change the white bigot”s opinion. If anything, the whites will just begin to resent the black man. Moving up financially, was a good idea for the black race, as long as they protested equality simultaneously, because equality would not just appear along with financial stability.
Agitation was not one of Washington”s endeavors. He believed that blacks should not provoke the white populace. He states in one of his articles, “Vastly more courage is often shown in one”s ability to suffer in silence…” (Washington 48). This enraged many blacks. They had already been ‘suffering in silence” through the endless years of slavery. Washington averred that rather than agitation, the black move upward should be a constant struggle.
“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 sever and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing” (Washington 140). Washington needed to realize that no political changes would come about without the black population demanding them. If the African-Americans did not command civil rights, the whites would never have bothered to change their ways. In this situation, speaking out is necessary.
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