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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Washington believes that the Black race can only rise through stages of development. He believes one sign of what he sees as the race’s immaturity and their general need to develop as a people is their attraction to superficial pleasures and items. Every time Washington visits a Black community, he comments on their wastefulness and their concern with outward appearances. In Washington, D.C., Washington states that middle-class Black people often have pretensions that make them care more for superficial signs of refinement than developing substantial skills to better their lives and the lives of others. He beleives his produces a narrowness that deprives them of self-reliance. Washington says that many middle-class Black people rely on the government to make a place or position for them instead of relying on their own labor and skills to create a position for themselves. Likewise, when Washington visits the poor communities that surround Tuskegee, he comments that though many families may lack basic amenities, like a full set of silverwares for each member of the family, many had expensive items like sewing machines and organs. Washington further notes that many of the families do not even use these expensive items, but have them only to show to their visitors.
The frequency and vehemence of Washington’s criticisms of Black people who he believes to be too caught up in superficial pleasures for their good are striking, especially given the infrequency of his somewhat muted denunciations of negative behavior by white people (including stripping Black men of the right to vote). Washington might respond to this by pointing out that his objective in writing Up From Slavery was to provide examples and advice that the Black community could apply to themselves in order to rise up, as he himself did–not to criticize the white community. He might also point out, as he explicitly states in the book regarding the institution of slavery, that he doesn’t believe it is helpful to hold grudges and linger on blame. Rather, he suggests, it is better to focus on the present and the potential for a better future.
One of the most frequent criticisms of Washington is that he generally represents racial violence and prejudice as aberration. Throughout Up From Slavery, Washington comments on his reception in numerous predominantly elite white spaces. At many crucial moments in Washington’s narrative, he describes how the generosity of whites led to his overcoming of an obstacle. When he first founds the Tuskegee school, the two men who are central to its existence are a former slave and a former slave owner. Likewise, to fund Tuskegee, Washington relies on the generosity of whites. Several moments also occur in the text when Washington anticipates a racist reaction to his presence that never occurs. An example of this is when Washington rides a train with two white women and shares lunch with them in their car. The rest of the passengers on the train are white men, and Washington expects them to react negatively. Nothing happens and the men later greet Washington warmly.
Washington does not deny that racial violence and prejudice against Black people exist, nor does he claim they are not damaging. In fact, he contends that they are detrimental to both white and Black people. but he does (quite naively, critics would argue) suggest that violence and discrimination would eventually go away if Black people generally would follow his example and lived their lives adhering to his principles.
The numerous obstacles that Washington encounters serve to underscore the strength of his determination. Though Washington faces a great many hardships, he uses them as opportunities to better learn how to make himself useful in the community where he finds himself. An example of this is ability to work his way to Hampton after running out of money early in his journey. While stranded in Richmond, Virginia, Washington offers his services to a nearby ship captain to earn money for food. Washington’s work so impresses the captain that the captain invites him to work for more days, allowing Washington to earn the money he needs to get to Hampton. Episodes like this recur throughout the text.