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Booker T. Washington recounts his childhood as a slave in Franklin County, Virginia. Because of his slave status, Washington is ignorant of his exact date of birth, his father’s identity, and his family ancestry. Nevertheless, through the “grape-vine,” rumor and conversation amongst slaves in slave quarters, Washington learns that his father is likely a white man from a nearby plantation. Washington also learns that his mother’s ancestors endured the Middle Passage, the frightful journey by ship from Africa to America.
Washington lives in a log cabin with his mother, his older brother John, and his sister Amanda. The log cabin is poorly constructed and open to the elements. The cabin’s wooden structure has numerous holes in its sides, an ill-fitting door, and no wooden floor. The naked earth serves as the floor, instead. In all manner of weather, the cabin is uncomfortable. In winter, Washington and his family find it impossible to keep warm. In spring and summer, they find it impossible to keep dry. Because Washington’s mother labors as the plantation’s cook, Washington’s cabin also doubles as the plantation’s kitchen. Many of Washington’s earliest memories are of the treats his mother procures as cook, including of a time when she woke him up in the middle of the night to eat chicken.
Washington’s small size makes him suited only for a small number of tasks on the plantation. He is often ordered to sweep the yards or to carry water out to the enslaved men in the fields.
His most dreaded task is going to the mill, which is three miles away from his plantation. On trips to the mill, slaves and other attendants load a horse with large bags of corn. Invariably, over the course of the long journey to the mill, however, the bags would shift and fall off. Unable to lift and reload the bags of corn himself, Washington would have to wait on the side of the road for passerby. Washington would sometimes have to wait for hours. During these times, he is always terrified because stories circulate amongst the slaves that deserted soldiers like to hide in the woods and lop off the ears of small, black boys.
Washington first gains self-knowledge as a slave when he hears his mother praying for President Lincoln’s soldiers to prevail in the Civil War. The experience of the war is very different for Black people and whites. Though deprivation is widespread during the war, Washington writes that the whites suffer more because they are used to certain luxuries, while the slaves are used to being resourceful. One of the young masters on Washington’s plantation is killed in the war, a death which Washington reports was met with sorrow even among the slaves.
When the war ends, Washington’s master calls all his slaves to the big house and reads the Emancipation Proclamation aloud. The slaves immediately rejoice and revel in the ecstasy of freedom. This ecstasy soon gives way to apprehension. Most slaves, unfamiliar with life outside of slavery, are not necessarily prepared to enter society. Older slaves, especially, left the plantation only to return to bargain with their former masters for positions that very much resembled the ones they held during times of enslavement.
Washington begins his narrative in a manner common to slave narratives by noting his relative ignorance about his birthday, his family ancestry, and the identity of his father. Though Up From Slavery is not a slave narrative, Washington borrows heavily from this tradition in order to establish his text as both a public and a private document. An important strategy that Washington uses throughout the text is the use of personal anecdote to support and substantiate specific elements of his social program for racial uplift.
Despite Washington’s professed ignorance and his lack of formal schooling, which was forbidden to the enslaved, he continually references the “grape-vine”—the sharing of overheard and unofficial information amongst slaves—as an important and accurate source of information. Through the “grape-vine,” Washington gains knowledge of his birth, his family ancestry, and current events. At one point, Washington marvels that the “grape-vine” often delivered information of the war to the slave quarters before whites knew of it in the big house. This establishes early a major theme in the book, which is Black people’s hunger for knowledge and information.
This first chapter also introduces the moral effects of slavery on both Black and white people, which Washington describes as disadvantageous. Washington recounts an early memory where his mother, the plantation cook, woke him up to eat chicken in the middle of the night. While it’s likely that his mother stole this chicken, Washington does not condemn her, but describes her actions as a direct result of the conditions of slavery. Similarly, Washington does not fault his absent and unknown father, rumored to be a white man from a nearby plantation, and likewise sees his behavior as result of the corrupting influence of the institution of slavery.
Other observations about white and Black people under slavery include their attitudes towards labor and industry. Because Black people were forced to labor and lived in debased conditions, Washington argues that they were unable to develop dignity through their labor. Their degraded position meant that they took little interest in the plantation and therefore did not learn to complete their work thoroughly or with an eye toward improvement. Likewise, whites were robbed of their spirit of self-reliance and industry due to their almost complete dependence on slave labor. The mistresses on his plantation did not know how to cook or sew and its masters could not repair a fence or effectively chop wood. This unwillingness to labor, for both Black and white people, is one of the most damning effects of slavery according to Washington.
Nevertheless, despite the harsh conditions of slavery, Washington notes a lack of bitterness in both white and Black people. During the Civil War, when one of his young masters dies, Washington describes the feeling of sorrow that swept through the slave quarters. He also notes the many slaves who cared for their wounded masters before and after the war. Likewise, Washington suggests that this lack of bitterness was also shared by whites. When Washington’s master announces the emancipation of all his slaves by reading the Emancipation Proclamation, he describes his master’s countenance as sad. Washington writes that his master is grieved not by the loss of property but by the loss of people who he had reared and come to know very closely. Washington notes that the intimate bonds that white and Black people formed during slavery signal the possibility of reconciliation between the races after slavery, an idea still very much in contention at the time of his writing.
Washington’s emphasis on the cordial relations between masters and the enslaved supports his point that animosity between the races is not natural, but the result of premature political agitation. The chapter’s closing anecdote emphasizes this point, the idea that the formerly enslaved must be prepared and educated to enjoy the full exercise of freedom. Upon hearing that they were free, the enslaved people on Washington’s plantation experienced a deep but fleeting jubilation. This jubilation soon gave way to the full realization of the responsibility of freedom. Many slaves, having only known life on the plantation, did not know how to navigate society to find a new home and occupation for themselves. Washington argues that many of the formerly slaves’ decision to remain on plantations was due to both their recognition of their lack of preparedness for full liberty and to their attachment to their old masters. This last idea is the most controversial part of Washington’s program for racial uplift and he will return to it throughout Up From Slavery.