Up from history

One American hero who won’t get his due during Black History Month is Booker T. Washington. Shelby Steele’s review of Robert Norrell’s Up From History: The LIfe of Booker T. Washington in last Sunday’s Times Book Review makes me want to read the biography and is worth reading on its own.

Steele deals with Washington’s unfashionable reputation, noting that “the brilliance with which he achieved the near impossible is forgotten, while the unfair presumption of his racial capitulation is ubiquitous.” Steele explains:

Norrell, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee, is writing history as well as biography here, and his attention to historical context has the effect of normalizing Washington. We see, for example, that in the post-Reconstruction South of “white nationalism” and lynching, his accommodation of segregation — in return for the latitude to pursue black economic and educational advancement — was really a rather brave and pro-black position. So we are able to view Washington as more Quixote than quisling, a man forever hoping against hope and tirelessly at war with a kind of impossibility. In the cause of his people, he burned himself out to a fine ash — dying in 1915 at 59, from exhaustion, high blood pressure and indifference to his health. He had single-handedly built a black college (Tuske­gee Institute), in an Alabama of Ku Klux Klan terrorism, that was bigger than any white university in the state. Yet even today, when there ought to be the repose in black and white America to see him more clearly, the name Booker T. Washington still carries that taint of Uncle Tomism….With more fearlessness than any ’60s black nationalist, he saw black Americans as a free-standing people and asked them to compete openly with all others….”Up From History” gives back to America one of its greatest heroes.

Jonathan Yardley also addresses the reputational issue regarding Washington: “As one who came of age in 1960, who shared the movement’s impatience for change, and who greatly admired Vann Woodward’s work, I reflexively accepted the received opinion of Washington. Norrell persuades me that I was wrong.” Writing in the same spirit as Steele, Yardley observes:

To see [Washington] as anything less than heroic borders on the incomprehensible. Nothing that he did was easy. He walked forever on “a tightrope between candor and survival,” between whites and blacks. He learned “that the only role open to him was that of the fox. To play the lion was to invite disaster. It was a bitter lesson that showed the limits on his ability to lead his race. A black leader who could not speak freely was not able to pursue equal racial and educational advancement. But if he owned up to that fact, he would be accepting that blacks’ hopes for improvement were futile, and he knew that progress would not grow from despair.” Still, he was the leader to whom blacks across the nation looked for guidance and inspiration, and he provided as much of both as circumstances permitted at an incredibly difficult time.

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