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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Over the course of Up From Slavery, Washington develops the idea and ideal of dignity through labor. For Washington, the gravest aspect of the institution of slavery is the denigration of labor for both Blacks and whites. Because the enslaved had no personal investment or return on their labor, they did not complete their work with an attitude toward improvement. Likewise, whites, largely deprived of meaningful labor, were robbed of the ability to achieve self-sufficiency. In both races, this produced personalities and characters that seek to escape labor. Washington emphasizes labor as the only way to make oneself useful in an interdependent, modern society. Throughout the whole of Up From Slavery, Washington searches for and obtains work. Further, once he obtains it, Washington completes all labor to best of his ability, no matter how lowly the task. At the Tuskegee school, Washington makes this idea and ideal a foundational ethos. All students who study at Tuskegee must learn a trade or industry alongside their more traditional academic pursuits. In addition, many of the buildings, most of the furniture, the wagons, and the materials used at the school are produced by students. This level of practical skill and diligence also acts as the foundation of Washington’s theory and program for racial uplift.
The people that Washington most admires and models himself after are those he labels selfless. Washington defines this as the willingness to work on the behalf of others. For Washington, this is not only about duty or labor, but also about the willingness to do one’s best for the benefit of the collective good. Washington believes that racial prejudice can be overcome if black people make themselves indispensable to their communities and their nation. The brick-making episode provides an example. Although the brick-making enterprise at Tuskegee failed three times before successfully producing bricks, the venture eventually proved successful–and even resulted in the boon of the school being able to sell its bricks on the open market. Washington describes how whites who were unsympathetic or apathetic to the education of Black students and the overall project of the Tuskegee school were willing to purchase Tuskegee bricks due to their quality and convenience. Washington suggests that if the Black race can find their niche in society by fulfilling a need, then they can co-exist peacefully and productively with whites.
Throughout Up From Slavery, Washington defends his ideas about racial advancement and uplift by subtly undermining the proposals of his critics. Though Washington does not explicitly state his objection to the strategies of specific thinkers like W.E.B. Dubois or even his predecessor, Frederick Douglass, he nevertheless highlights the wastefulness of political agitation for equal rights at every chance he gets. To do this, Washington shows that political agitation results in worse relations and outcomes than those that existed before. For example, when he goes home to Malden after his second year at the Hampton Institute, Washington finds that both the salt-furnace and the coal-mine are not in operation due to worker’s strikes. In Chapter 4, Washington describes how strikers usually spent all their savings during the strikes and returned to work in debt, but at the same wages. He raises the impracticality of political agitation again after his controversial Atlanta Exposition speech (later dubbed the “Atlanta compromise” speech). After the success of his speech, he hypothetically asks if a Black man would have been invited to give a speech had people agitated to put a Black person on the program. He answers in the negative, saying that such opportunities can only arise through merit (as defined by Washington).