How does Washington use the conventions of autobiography to communicate his social and political beliefs about the future of black life in the United States?

Up From Slavery is an autobiography. Autobiographies are biographies written by a person about his or her own life. While Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery fits this definition, the instrumentality of his writing and his employment of a ghostwriter suggests aims beyond those of personal revelation. That is, Washington’s autobiography aims not only to tell Washington’s personal history, but also the history of race relations and black life in America. It tells the story of Booker T. Washington’s life from his birth in enslavement to his adult life in freedom lived and experienced as a successful educator, orator, and race spokesman. In telling his story, Washington also provides social and political commentary on what he saw as the opportunities available to Black people from the period of enslavement until the turn of the 20th century. Washington uses his life as an example, both of what is possible and of how to achieve it.

Up From Slavery, then, serves as much as a political pamphlet and self-help manual as it does an autobiography. By using his own life as an example of why certain principles like hard work, self-reliance, and the development of practical skills are desirable, Washington can, by his own success, claim to confirm their benefits. This removes Washington’s social and political ideas from the realm of theory and places them firmly within the realm of lived experience.

How does Washington decry the institution of slavery?

Critics of Booker T. Washington often cite his attitudes towards white people and white racism as too passive and underdeveloped. In fact, Washington’s autobiography is notable for its absence of violence. Other writers who chronicled enslavement and its aftermath, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, describe incidents of violence to communicate the horror of slavery. Washington, instead, registers his distaste with the slavery differently. Washington denounces slavery for its denigration of labor. In both white and Black people, the institution of slavery produces an attitude towards labor that robs the individual of dignity and self-reliance.

Washington describes how white people did not learn the dignity of labor because they lost the opportunity to practice and perfect basic tasks since slaves did that work instead. Washington describes the inability of his masters to properly mend a fence and the inability of the wife of his former slaveholder to properly mend a dress or fashion a bonnet or cook a meal. Likewise, he states that Black people did not learn the dignity of labor because enslavement robbed them of the ability to personal invest in their work. They conducted their work on the behalf of others. This means that the enslaved often did not complete work with an eye toward either improvement or perfection. For both races, this produces a character and personality that seeks to escape work. Post-emancipation, Washington emphasizes the power of labor to transform and perfect the individual. In fact, the ability to labor and to learn to labor well forms to cornerstone of Washington’s theories of Black advancement.

How does Booker T. Washington define education?

Though Booker T. Washington never offers an explicit definition of education in Up From Slavery, an interested reader can read the entire book as Washington’s elaboration of the type of education best suited for former slaves. In Up From Slavery, Washington repeatedly emphasizes the idea that former slaves lack the social and moral training necessary to be productive members of American society. Because of this, Washington believes that more than book learning and industrial training are necessary to fully equip former slaves to navigate modern society. Education is not limited to what one can learn in books or through labor, but also about promoting self-respect in oneself to engage education in a way that will be beneficial beyond oneself.

When describing his time in Washington, D.C., Washington criticizes middle-class blacks who have an education, and in many cases practical training, but still lack the necessary moral training to better themselves and others in his opinion. He says this results in an overemphasis on material objects and outward appearances, as well as the cultivation of tastes that cannot necessary be met with the education one receives. For Washington, education requires the full engagement of the individual. Washington instructs students at Tuskegee how to eat properly, how to live in a civilized community, and how to exercise moral discipline alongside more traditional forms of training in academics and industry. Washington’s goal is to take an entire race, who have for generations upon generations been deprived of the opportunity for education, and to train them to make them both self-reliant and able to contribute to a broader community.