Today, I was conversing with a fellow blogger located in Fort Worth. I have a confession to make. I must admit my sin, the sin of objectifying Mr. Booker T. Washington as a set of ideas. Like all sin, it was both passed down to me; I learned in high school that Booker was a sell out, his ideas were “conservative” and benefitted only the rich, white segregationists.
Like all sin, my objectification of such a person as Booker was also a choice. I choose to study a large trilogy and volumes of work by and about W.E.B. DuBois, Washington’s sharpest critic from the Negro community in the late 19th/early 20th century. I bowed at the alter of ideas, ignoring the realities that both black men inhabited.
Then, I decided to challenge my own perspective, to remain ever vigilant in self-criticism, and as I now explore Booker Taliaferro Washinton in his own words in his autobiography, Up From Slavery, I have learned from my mistakes. I had become the victim of my own adventure in missing the point. Does the world exist in the realm of ideas? Am I the very Platonist I seek to rip away from Christianity?
Washington nor DuBois should be utilized for us merely to engage in our left versus right culture wars. They in their own times, their very blackness and maleness, and yes, religiousity, should be not be for our objectification. Rather, if we would start to look to them as primary texts, meaning, their black male bodies located in the United States post-Reconstruction, we would begin to see that they are more than the cultural symbols Fox News and the Civil Rights movement have made them out to be. What did it mean for Booker Washington to work with poor whites, black and Native Americans? Should an African American with no property or without the ability to read, be considered prepared for political office (as Washington asked)? Is the world really meant to be inherited by the Talented Tenth [i.e., light skinned and mulatto Negros] trained in progressive liberal arts education (ala DuBois)? Does class matter?
I believe it does. It makes all the difference. What else would compel Washington to stay in impoverished Alabama rather than to try to move up to the ivory tower, say a Harvard where DuBois was? And isn’t it true that DuBois moved to Ghana at the end of his life, giving up on America as hopeless? This act fuels my suspicion that Back-to-Africa movements / pan-Africanisms are token gestures from the black bourgeois class, a feeling of guilt for the state of the lower classes, discussing histories of oppression, albeit at a distance.
- Booker T. Washington on the Civil War (politicaljesus.com)
- The time is right to remember Booker T. Washington (thegrio.com)