Labelled by some as a submissive ‘Uncle Tom’ character in the story of the post-emancipation era, it’s time to readdress the role of Booker T Washington. A former-slave who worked his way up to become the most influential African-American of his generation, Washington had clear ideas as to the best ways for other black Americans to improve their own lives and, on a larger scale, improve the African-American experience as a whole. He was a successful teacher, author, political figure and orator.
Washington’s strategy was accomodationist. Promoting self-help and manual skills as oppose to liberal arts he believed that, after slavery, black Americans would be able to contribute and be accepted more easily and significantly in the wider national community through this approach. He argued that it helped African-Americans immediately and did not threaten the white community so garnered a significant degree of support among both groups, stating “A race, like an individual, lifts itself up by lifting others up.”
Due to Washington’s massive impact and influence sculptor Charles Keck created a piece for the Tuskgee Institute in 1922. It is called Lifting the Veil of Ignorance (click here for an image). Washington is depicted lifting a veil from a slave. This represents his goal of bringing African-Americans a better life through a better education. The slave crouches on a plow and anvil, which symbolises the Washington and Tuskegee’s focus on agriculture and industry.
However many came to disagree with this focus. Was Washington lifting the veil of ignorance or keeping it in place? In his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison described his response to this debate: “I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”
Considering how the black minority in the United States should deal with oppression after slavery formed one of the most significant debates in African American history. W.E.B Du Bois believed Washington’s strategy was flawed. He proposed that blacks should constantly challenge their position in society and that the ‘talented tenth’ would demonstrate their potential. Marcus Garvey agreed that African Americans should embrace self-help and improve their economic base through manual work; however he worked towards total separation of the races.
This division of strategies and philosophies between three leading African-American figures of the early twentieth century divided not only the energies of the wider African-American population in the United States but also became a major obstacle for collective progress. How far should this effect our views on Washington and his contribution?
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