Booker T. Washington acts as both narrator and protagonist in Up From Slavery. The difference between these two roles emphasizes and underscores both the journey Washington takes and how he reaches his destination. If Up From Slavery in part tells the story of Washington’s development from enslaved man to free one, from former slave to student, from student to local school teacher, from local school teacher to renowned educator, thinker, and race-leader, then it does so by way of elaborating Washington’s theory and social program for racial uplift. Ideas and ideals central to this program are the practice and development of dignity through labor, gradualism with respect to formal political rights, and the cultivation of self through the attainment of practical skills that allow one to be of service to one’s community. Washington uses his two roles in Up From Slavery, as both narrator and protagonist, to show the gradual process by which he earned his success and knowledge, and to provide commentary on those steps to show their importance to the reader.
As a protagonist, Washington is curious, ambitious, and earnest in all he undertakes. He is humble and his humble beginnings allow him to learn important lessons that Washington the narrator can then comment on and further impart to the reader. Crucially, Washington the protagonist embodies all of Washington’s most deeply held beliefs and because of this, the protagonist offers a verification that they do lead to advancement and success. The “sweeping examination” that Washington passes provides example. When Washington arrives at the Hampton Institute for the first time, dirty and disheveled, he is not immediately admitted. Despite this, Washington exercises patience and restraint, even as multiple other students are admitted before him. When the head teacher, Miss Mackie, asks him to sweep the adjoining room, he does not question her dictate, but instead embraces the request as an opportunity. This is emblematic of how Washington believes former slaves should embrace whatever opportunities are available for labor in their respective communities. If one does one’s best always, not only does he learn something, but others also benefit and are sure to recognize his merit.
As narrator, Washington is much more strident. He openly approves and disapproves of certain behaviors. He regularly tells the reader how certain paths might lead to corruption, and how certain others to success or personal fulfillment. An example of this is Washington’s surveys of different black communities. When in Washington, D.C., Washington comments on the overemphasis on outward appearances and the acquisition of money, neither of which do anything to improve communities. Washington the narrator explicitly inveighs against this selfishness and cautions against the behaviors that inspire it. Another example is Washington’s long tour of the homes of former slaves in Alabama. This tour allows protagonist Washington to get a better idea of the needs of his potential pupils, but for narrator Washington, the tour serves to caution against the wastefulness and poor habits that he sees.