BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 26, 2009
Up from History:
The Life of Booker T. Washington
By Robert J. Norrell
(Harvard University Press, 508 pp., $35)
Once the most famous and influential African American in the United States (and probably the world), Booker T. Washington has earned at best mixed reviews in the decades since his death in 1915. Black intellectuals and political activists, from W. E. B. Du Bois to the present day, have generally seen Washington as a conservative racial accommodationist, yielding to the repressive power of Jim Crow and urging American blacks to abandon their political struggles for equality and instead to set their sights on a future of manual labor and petty property ownership.
Nothing brought Washington more notoriety than the speech that he delivered in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta when, before a racially mixed audience, he appeared to acquiesce to the imperatives of legal segregation ("in all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers") while encouraging African Americans to "cast down your buckets" in the Jim Crow South. Although he is still read in college (and some high school) classes, usually against Du Bois, and remains in the pantheon of black historical figures, Washington is widely ridiculed and derided in black communities for his seemingly shameless pursuit of white favor. For many, he is the classic "Uncle Tom." Even his most distinguished biographer, Louis R. Harlan, could not do much better than find at Washington's core a drive for personal power and a penchant for political manipulation. And now that we are in the Age of Obama, when a man of African descent who set his sights on higher education and threw himself into grassroots politics--in short, who did many of the things that Washing-
ton advised against--has been elected president of the United States, do we really need to reacquaint ourselves with the likes of Booker T. Washington? Do his life and views any longer have meaning for us? Do we need another biography?
Robert J. Norrell clearly thinks we do. The author of several histories of race and the American South, including a fine study of the civil rights movement in Tuskegee, Alabama, where Washington flourished, Norrell believes that both the professional and popular wisdoms on Washington are seriously mistaken. In his view, they overestimate the efficacy of protest as a vehicle for change and they underestimate the challenges that Washington faced. Americans, Norrell writes, have lost touch not only with the idea of educational, moral, and economic development as a means for integrating disadvantaged groups in the modern world, but also with the memory of how fiercely Southern whites contested the developmental projects that Washington devised. In Booker T. Washington, Norrell sees a sophisticated mind, a complex approach to social problems, and admirable goals for the people he sought to lead, all in a world that set profound limits on what he could expect to achieve. Rather than take the potentially suicidal path of resistance or simply concede the fight, Washington offered hope and optimism, together with an effort to rise above history itself. But who, we might ask, benefitted from his offer, and how?
Booker T. Washington lived an extraordinary life, as he was among the first to recognize. Indeed, much of what we know about his early years comes to us by way of two autobiographies that he published just after the turn of the twentieth century, The Story of My Life and Work, and the far better-known Up from Slavery. Both celebrated Washington's rise to the leadership of his race and provided powerful lessons as to how the perilous world of the late nineteenth century might be successfully navigated. Although Norrell does not uncover anything really new in the details, it is hard not to marvel at the ascent.
Washington's origins were as humble as any American origins could be. He was born a slave in 1856 on a small plantation in western Virginia. His father was a white man whose identity (he claimed) was never revealed to him, and his mother, Jane, was a slave who struggled mightily to protect and nurture her three children, and to instill the values of hard work and thrift. "If I have done anything in life worth attention," Washington subsequently reflected, "I feel sure that I inherited the disposition from my mother." Very young when the Civil War erupted, Washington later remembered how the slaves learned of the unfolding political events and how his mother prayed fervently "that Lincoln and his armies might be successful and that one day she and her children might be free."
By 1865, those prayers were answered, and Jane quickly gathered up the children and headed to the industrial village of Malden, West Virginia, two hundred
miles away, where her husband, Wash Ferguson, had found a job in the local saltworks. Although Booker (he had no surname at this point) initially went to work with Ferguson at the saltworks and then, for a time, in nearby coal mines (family economies were the basis of survival for most laboring people in the United States), his great desire was for an education. Stepfather Ferguson saw no purpose in the idea and was especially mindful of the lost income. But Jane helped her son gain the rudiments of literacy and then persuaded her husband to allow Booker to go to school if he would do an early shift at the saltworks. Enrolling in school set him on a better path and, not incidentally, required that he have a surname: he chose "Washington," which Norrell suggests associated him forever with the American nation and its founder, but was also the first name of his stepfather. He later added Taliaferro as a middle name, which his mother had apparently given him shortly after his birth.
Far more important than school in advancing Washington's prospects was a job that he secured (owing to Jane's inquiries) as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, the New England–born wife of Lewis Ruffner, who owned the saltworks, had been a general in the Union Army, and was the town's leading Republican. A former English teacher herself, Mrs. Ruffner developed a close and trusting relationship with Washington. Like his mother Jane, she emphasized values of self-reliance, thrift, sobriety, and accountability, and she promoted his education not only by giving him time off to attend school but also by helping him to refine his verbal skills. For his part, Washington learned the importance of doing jobs properly and promptly, and began to develop new ambitions and a sense of self-confidence. He also learned about the very tense political world of the post-emancipation South, as Lewis Ruffner's Republicans became targets of vigilante terrorism. What turned out to be four years at the Ruffners thereby taught Washington valuable lessons about getting along with white people and the dangers of participating in politics.
Ironically enough, it was from two black coal miners, not from the Ruffners or his school teachers, that Washington learned of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, located near Norfolk, Virginia, a teacher- and vocational-training school for black students that enabled the poorer among them to work for their tuition and board. Feeling readied by his time with the Ruffners and eager to better himself, Washington cobbled together a little money from family and friends and headed off on what was a five-hundred-mile journey. He arrived at Hampton with a scant fifty cents in his pocket. He was sixteen years old.
Hampton Institute represented an important front in the cultural reconstruction of the former Confederate South--designed not so much to reunite the nation politically or to rebuild the South economically but to transform, or "civilize," the South, and especially its former slave population. For years, anti-slavery Northerners had portrayed the slave South as economically backward and culturally retrograde, a blight on the nation's progress. And even if they did not believe that African Americans were innately inferior to whites (as most did), they nonetheless thought that the experience of enslavement had left them mired in ignorance, superstition, and profligacy. The project, therefore, was not only to ensure the demise of slavery but also to uplift the former slaves, to instruct them in proper conduct, self-discipline, the useful arts, family responsibility, and Christian values.
Founded in 1868 on the site of a wartime contraband (or fugitive slave) camp, Hampton was headed up by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a Union Army general who had commanded black troops and then served in the Freedmen's Bureau. Born to Christian missionaries in Hawaii, he seemed to have imbibed their paternalist disposition to lend helping hands to those they regarded as intellectually and morally inferior. For Armstrong, Hampton's task was to advance black folk along an evolutionary path by enabling them to develop labor skills and economic independence. He had little interest in the classical curriculum and instead was satisfied with courses in English, mathematics, biology, and history. Most of all, he hoped to promote good character and work habits. As Norrell notes, it was little better than a modern middle-school education.
Washington thrived. He may have seen in Armstrong the white father figure he hoped would claim him, and he certainly appears to have been influenced by Armstrong's Anglo-Saxon triumphalism, not to mention his anti-Catholicism. Most consequentially, Washington caught Armstrong's attention and was chosen as one of Hampton's graduation speakers in 1875. Then, after brief stints teaching school back in Malden, reading law, and attending theological seminary, he was called back to Hampton in 1879 to give the commencement address. Armstrong was so impressed with Washington's speech ("The Force that Wins") that he hired him at Hampton and began to groom him for educational leadership. In early 1881, having been asked to recommend a white man to run a newly established black normal school in rural Tuskegee, Alabama, Armstrong instead recommended Washington, "the best man we ever had here."
When Washington arrived in the Alabama black belt in June of 1881, he had to start from scratch. What would become the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute had neither a building in which to hold classes nor students to attend them. But he quickly arranged to use the local Zion Negro Church, a log structure, and then traversed the countryside in search of student recruits. Washington organized the curriculum around his (and Armstrong's) view of the educational basics: grammar and composition, history, geography, arithmetic, and--by no means least--hygiene. Those students who could not afford the school fees were put to work building and farming. Before the 1880s were out, Tuskegee had about five hundred students (male and female), twenty-five teachers (all from Hampton), and, owing to money that he raised annually (mostly in the Northeast) and the hard work of the school community, a campus of nearly seven hundred acres with classrooms, dormitories, a foundry, a blacksmith shop, and fields sown in market and subsistence crops.
Unobtrusive as he tried to be in conducting the business of Tuskegee, Washington recognized the need to cultivate the good graces of the local white elite. Tuskegee was in the heart of a black-majority district, but Reconstruction had already been overthrown and white Democrats had re-asserted their political power, often through paramilitary means. Washington invited the local white merchant Thomas Dryer to join the school's board of trustees, and did what he could to promote an image of Tuskegee as a "model community" nurturing peace and mutual good will between the races.
Even so--and this is Norrell's main brief for reconsidering Washington-- there was little peace or good will to be found among those he calls "white nationalists." By Norrell's lights, they were omnipresent, not only in the vicinity of Tuskegee but most everywhere else in the Deep South. The white nationalists had moved to enforce black submission in the aftermath of emancipation; they had organized to harass, drive out, or murder black political activists; and they looked with profound suspicion on any project to educate and advance black people. Washington would have to tread both carefully and creatively, avoiding conflict and confrontation while spinning fictions of racial harmony and respect. He would become, Norrell writes, "a master of indirection, of the hidden hand of action; but he did so because he had to."
It wasn't easy, and Washington had to surmount a variety of personal challenges in the early years. He exhausted himself attempting to manage the school and simultaneously raise funds for its operations, and despite his best efforts Tuskegee occasionally tottered on the edge of financial ruin. Two of his three marriages--we do not know very much about any of them--ended with the untimely deaths of his wives. An accidental fire destroyed his house on Tuskegee's grounds. And Washington's successes at building Tuskegee invited the envy and hostility of William Councill and William Burns Patterson, who ran the two black public colleges in the state.
The next decade--the 1890s--saw Tuskegee become more firmly established and secure financially, and Washington emerge as a figure of national consequence. Thanks to the donations of wealthy white Northerners and their foundations, Washington managed to raise significant amounts of money, boost enrollments, and purchase land. He also became increasingly interested in industrial education as a means of developing a black petit bourgeoisie and a class of skilled tradesmen, believing that white labor hostility and massive European immigration threatened to displace black workers and small businesses. And he tried to reach out to neighboring black farmers by initiating a Tuskegee Negro Conference to address their problems.
The irony, and Norrell acknowledges it, is that the 1890s also saw the most ferocious attack on African Americans since the late seventeenth century, when slavery was codified into law. White supremacists targeted black civil and political rights, social services, institutions, and the public spaces they could use, enacting disfranchisement and legalized segregation, not to mention carrying out hundreds of lynchings in the small-town and rural districts. The "Negro Problem," a white discourse about black status and prospects in America (and a response to black gains and assertiveness), suddenly received attention across the country, and seemed to suggest a very pessimistic white consensus about the future.
Washington was well aware of this discourse, and very much feared the repercussions for Tuskegee, and for African Americans more generally. When he was invited to speak at the Atlanta exposition in 1895, he saw an opportunity to shift the terms of discussion and counter white pessimism about the possibilities for peace and progress between the races. Although later critics termed the address the "Atlanta Compromise," since it implored Southern blacks to accept the world of Jim Crow while turning a friendly face to whites, Norrell asks us to regard it somewhat differently. True, Washington said it had been a mistake for the federal government to enfranchise African American men. True, he described Reconstruction and the black political mobilizations it enabled as a misguided experiment. True, he claimed that blacks had learned that they would mostly live by manual labor. And true, he called agitation for social equality "the extremest folly." But Norrell insists that Washington was attempting to address white anxieties, and imagining a future in which African Americans could be seen as advancing rather than declining, could be accepted by white people, and could find a secure place for themselves in a once hostile America. In sum: he wanted to find "a solution to the Negro Problem."
The verdict was remarkable. The white South may have remained fairly quiet (aside from some prominent boosters) and there may have been sprinklings of black dissent; but praise and enthusiasm for the speech flooded in, even from later critics such as Du Bois. It made Washington an instant celebrity and effectively elevated him to leadership of the race. This was a propitious moment: earlier in the year Frederick Douglass, the fugitive slave, abolitionist, and great champion of civil and political equality, had died, and with him, perhaps, the disposition toward political organization and protest. Washington's ascendancy seemed to herald a less confrontational orientation.
Consecrated as race leader, Washington set out to use the power and the influence at his disposal. With a keen appreciation for public relations and mass communications, he tried to counter the media's negative representation of African Americans and instead spoke almost relentlessly--though in a folksy and unassuming manner--of the progress that they were making. Recognizing that African Americans offered the Republican Party the few votes it managed to win in the South, he looked to wrest their fair share of patronage rewards. Fully cognizant of Tuskegee's growing reputation nationally, he built a large network of supporters (detractors would call it the "Tuskegee Machine") who embraced his mission and leadership. He soon wrote autobiographies that told of his rise from humble roots and were meant to exemplify the arc of racial advance. And when an assassin's bullet ended the life of President William McKinley, the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, who seemed to share Washington's views about black education and moral improvement, immediately began to consult him about political appointments in the South. Scandalizing much of the white South, Roosevelt even had him to dinner at the White House.
Still, as Norrell insists, Washington was not simply trying to curry white favor, bow to Jim Crow, or feather his own nest. He decried the humiliations of segregation, was disheartened by the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which countenanced segregation, and moved, mostly behind the scenes, to defeat or deflect state initiatives depriving African Americans of the political rights they had attained during Reconstruction. He even saw merit in urban boycotts of segregated streetcars and, on occasion, spoke out publicly against lynching. Norrell argues that Washington anticipated much of the NAACP's later civil rights agenda, and buttresses this claim by describing the vicious white nationalist attacks on him that warned white Southerners of Washington's goal of black economic and social equality and of his deceitful ways.
Not all African Americans of the time understood Washington as Norrell understands him, and by the turn of the twentieth century a cohort had begun to array against him. They were mostly to be found in the North and the District of Columbia, and they bridled at Washington's willingness to conciliate the white South, and lower the horizons of black aspiration, and tolerate the ferocious repression of black people--at least without speaking up publicly. They also worried about the power that he was accumulating and the influence that he wielded in the Republican party. Du Bois would become the most prominent of these opponents, and despite his previous support for Washington and the post at Tuskegee that Washington offered him, he famously challenged Washington's claim to leadership in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Two years later that opposition would find expression in the Niagara Movement, organized by Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, and twenty-eight other black intellectuals, professionals, and businessmen, for the aggressive pursuit of civil rights. It was a forerunner of the NAACP.
Norrell insists that Du Bois purposefully misrepresented Washington's views and in so doing embraced a racial essentialism that would inform later black nationalisms. There is some truth to this. Du Bois was a complex thinker whose ideas changed over time and could never be put into neat categories. His subsequent efforts to defeat Marcus Garvey in the early 1920s demonstrate the lengths to which he might go to take down rivals. Yet while Washington fought back "aggressively" and "with fierce cunning," the damage to him seemed to mount steadily thereafter. Washington initially responded to news of the brutal Atlanta race riot of 1906 with a silence that further angered his critics. His influence with President Roosevelt began to decline, as the Republican Party determined to pursue a "lily-white" strategy in the South, and matters deteriorated in the subsequent administration of William Howard Taft. The NAACP was established in 1909 around a program of fighting racial discrimination and calls for Washington's replacement as a race leader. Worse still, in 1911 he had an altercation outside a white woman's apartment in Manhattan, and although he denied any impropriety, the rampant speculation about a sexual encounter was, in Norrell's words, "plausible." (Du Bois claimed it involved a prostitute.)
For the next several years, Washington took greater aim at racial discrimination in American public life, helping to challenge a repressive contract labor law in Alabama, arguing against residential segregation, laying the groundwork for the National Urban League, and attempting to stop the showing of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Norrell senses in Washington's language around this time a greater "assertiveness" and a "more emphatic rejection of injustice." Perhaps Washington was taking fuller account of his critics; perhaps he was attempting to salvage his leadership. In any event, his time was running out. In late 1914, Washington's health, which had troubled him for years, began to fail. There were symptoms of diabetes and bouts of acute gastrointestinal distress, severe headaches and high blood pressure. When he finally succumbed in November 1915, complications from syphilis may have been in play as well: a rather inglorious end for a man whom Norrell regards as a prophetic figure.
If Booker T. Washington is to be understood as a prophetic figure, readers might expect that Robert Norrell would conclude Up from History with a serious consideration of Washington's legacies. They will be disappointed. After a few gestures in this direction, Norrell ends instead with a screed against those writers who, in his judgment, have misunderstood or failed to appreciate Washington. They include many scholars (John Hope Franklin, Rayford Logan, August Meier, David Levering Lewis) and black freedom activists (Martin Luther King, John L. Lewis), but Norrell reserves special venom for C. Vann Woodward and Louis R. Harlan. Woodward, it seems, embraced Du Bois's views (including the "Atlanta Compromise") and criticized Washington for accommodating injustice and cozying up to powerful whites; Harlan then "recycled his mentor's pejoratives" and apparently, like many of Woodward's other students, "jealously protected his positions."
Now, we all get angry and irritated at our critics, and at other scholars and rivals whom we believe got the thing wrong. But mostly we manage to let it pass or, through the good offices of friends and editors, agree to take a deep breath, have a stiff drink, or see our therapist before doing something foolish. Norrell seems to have been left to his own devices, and he serves up utterly unmerited disrespect for his predecessors. In truth, Norrell's interpretive differences with Woodward and Harlan are really matters of emphasis, and, rather than "recycling" Woodward, Harlan's acclaimed two-volume biography is in every way his own work and one that will remain among the great books on Washington for a long time to come. But the real price for this misplaced indignation is Norrell's inability to recognize a number of prophetic legacies that should indeed be attributed to Washington.
First, though, a reckoning. Washington deserves great credit for struggling his way out of Malden, West Virginia, excelling at Hampton, and building Tuskegee Institute from the ground up in an intensely hostile environment. As a "race leader," however, his achievements are not so easy to detect. Washington may have wished to change the racial discourse in the United States, enable black progress, and encourage Americans to see the racial future in optimistic terms; and he may have imagined that by accepting the main lines of Jim Crow, cultivating wealthy white conservatives, and instructing black folk to avoid politics and get down to work, he would contribute to those ends. But in fact there was little to show for it. If anything, conditions deteriorated dramatically for African Americans during Washington's ascendancy, and racial antagonisms became even more bitter and explosive. Instead of "casting down their buckets," hundreds of thousands of black Southerners thus voted with their feet and began to head North in the first phases of what is now known as the Great Migration.
If Washington chose to work behind the scenes rather than in public to defeat or to curb the mounting forces of white supremacy, he had little if anything to show for that, either. In the 1890s and the first decades of the twentieth century, lynching reached epidemic proportions. Southern states disenfranchised African American voters, segregated public facilities, and dramatically cut funding for black social services (including schools)--and the federal government ratified those policies. This was truly, as Rayford Logan put it, the "nadir" of black life in the recent United States. Norrell seems to acknowledge as much in describing Washington as "a heroic failure," but he places the stress on "heroic." I would place the stress, in these matters, on "failure."
Yet there are ways in which Washington did cast a long and significant shadow, in which he was prophetic and visionary, and in which his legacies remain with us. Had Norrell been less focused on besting his scholarly predecessors on what turn out to be relatively narrow grounds, he may well have glimpsed them. How so? The "Negro Problem," which established long discursive legs in the late nineteenth century, had been central to the white American encounter with African Americans since at least the late eighteenth century. The "problem" was not how to square slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or to sustain a democracy with a large social group whose very presence had been coerced, or to assimilate formerly enslaved people into the body politic. The "problem," especially after emancipation, was one of "management." Black people were a "problem" because they were in the United States, and white people had to figure out how to move on with their own business without becoming mired in conflicts with blacks or utilizing too many valuable resources to control them. (Most every society, it should be said, has some version of the "Negro Problem.")
In his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1787, and in other writings on slavery and African Americans, Thomas Jefferson established an important intellectual foundation. Troubled by the morality and the political wisdom of slaveholding, Jefferson still could not imagine how white and black Americans might live together in peace under conditions of freedom. This was his "Negro Problem," and while he dodged it by refusing publicly to endorse emancipation, he also suggested that colonization (forced exile of the black population) might be the most suitable solution. Colonization subsequently became a centerpiece of emancipationist thought in the United States--Abraham Lincoln held on to it even as late as his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 1862--and it remained one of several white perspectives on the "Negro Problem" that emerged after the Civil War.
By the late 1880s and 1890s, when Booker T. Washington took direct account of it, the "Negro Problem" loomed especially large and worrisome, because the first generation of whites and blacks born after slavery were now meeting each other as adults (chiefly) in the Southern states, and also because violence and repression seemed to be the first resorts for many whites, particularly in rural and small-town areas. Washington's efforts to develop a new script for the "Negro Problem" must be seen in relation to the work of white Southerners and Northerners who mostly lived in cities, considered themselves modern and enlightened (they were often part of the Progressive movement), and crafted the logic--if not the specific policies--of segregation and disfranchisement.
Like Washington, they saw democratic politics provoking strife, and the social confusions of the public world inviting confrontations. The racial etiquettes of slavery were gone, but they had not been replaced by new ones, save for the enforced submission of African Americans. Lynchings and other forms of violent repression, they believed, cast the South as a barbaric society and discouraged economic investment. Segregation and disfranchisement seemed to promise progress and civility in Southern life, by placing political power in the hands of those prepared to exercise it and orchestrating, with legally prescribed rules, how whites and blacks were to negotiate the public sphere. They did not share Washington's interest in black education and economic advancement, of course; but they all embraced the image of peace, prosperity, goodwill, and progress that depended on the rational management of race.
As Michael R. West shows in his brilliant book The Education of Booker T. Washington (which Norrell does not cite), Washington, together with these white modernizers, thus invented the idea of "race relations" as an approach to, and a cure for, the "Negro Problem." "Race relations" was a framework of analysis and a discursive practice--a way of choreographing and assessing the interactions and relative advances of black and white people--that emerged in the age of Washington and became so deeply embedded in popular thought and academic culture that it came to appear as a "thing," or set of relations in their own right--as the very basis of American and African American historical study rather than as a political construction of modernity. Indeed, as West suggests, the idea of "race relations" so powerfully influenced the ensuing decades that the developing civil rights movement cannot be understood apart from it.
Here the prophetic and visionary Washington comes forth, though perhaps not as Norrell intended, and places his stamp on--and constrains--future black freedom struggles. The "Negro Problem" remained a central category of American social discourse, as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison took pains to observe, and "race relations," rather than, say, democracy, equality, or power, became (and still is) the principal measure of evaluation.
Booker T. Washington's legacies can be seen in other areas as well. Norrell argues, I think correctly, that despite the hostility of mostly Northern black critics, Washington enjoyed great support and popularity in the South, together with significant recognition in many other parts of the black world, especially southern Africa and the Caribbean. After all, hundreds of black teachers received their training at Tuskegee and then went out, often into the rural areas whence many of them originally came, to open new schools or to take up posts at schools that were already established. We do not learn anything from Norrell about these teachers, their schools, or the communities they served (even though many of the teachers corresponded with Washington). This is unfortunate, because it would help us to understand how Washington's ideas and approaches translated on the ground, and where they had most resonance. What are we to make, for example, of a black tenant farmer, living in a "family rent group" in Mississippi, who went to hear Washington speak and, while finding much with which to agree, adamantly rejected the "philosophy of casting down one's bucket wherever one was?" "This," he charged, "smacked of the white man's idea that black people should be satisfied with what they had rather than make any attempt to better themselves."
My sense is that Washington articulated ideas and aspirations that were widespread among African Americans in the rural and small-town South, but had little to do with accommodating or submitting to the demands of white people. Their concern was, rather, with community development, economic independence, self-governance, and self-defense; with limited or no trust in the good intentions of white folk; and with efforts to distance themselves as much as possible from whites and to have few economic entanglements with them. In the years after emancipation, many African Americans lived chiefly among themselves, sometimes in black towns, more often in unincorporated black settlements on the edges of plantations or urban centers. In the 1870s and 1880s, some evinced an interest in emigrating to the West or even to Liberia; and by the 1920s, many of them, in the South or as recent migrants to the North, were drawn to Marcus Garvey (who was himself influenced by Washington while still in Jamaica) and his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Over time, they built schools, hired teachers, educated their children, organized mutual aid societies, opened small businesses, tried to protect each other from white harassment, and eventually worried that de-segregation might destroy much of what they had achieved. A good deal of what Booker T. Washington said about the ways of the world seemed accurate to them, as would be a good deal that Marcus Garvey, and then Malcolm X, said.
Booker T. Washington, in sum, must be placed in the intellectual and political genealogy of black nationalism as well as in that of civil rights. The complexity of his many legacies invites us to take a different, and perhaps more unsettling, view of American and African American history during the past century, one that might gauge the currents of black nationalism more seriously and the traditions of civil rights more critically. It may also help us to think more deeply about what Barack Obama's election does and does not represent.
There can be little question that Obama's successful campaign for the presidency was a stunning experience for a country that systematically exploited, repressed, and discriminated against people of African descent for four centuries. His political success can be seen as the culmination of black freedom struggles that have been under way for decades. A great many Americans have felt a new pride and hopefulness as to what the election of 2008 says about us as a people. But there are warning signs as well. It is no accident that Obama's is not the "up from slavery" story; and the controversy over Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity Baptist Church in Chicago that almost sank his candidacy reminds us of the suspicions and the misunderstandings that still engulf many whites and blacks, especially those who do not move among the well-educated, and increasingly integrated, upper middle class. Just five years ago, as we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown decision, there was enormous pessimism about what had and had not been achieved since 1954--a powerful feeling among African Americans that they had paid a heavy price for desegregation (the destruction of black institutions and a black teaching corps) without receiving many of its benefits. Educational and social segregation, especially among black working-class families and the black poor, seem no less entrenched, and perhaps more intractable, than ever, since they are the products of profound historical inequalities rather than legal mandates.
Obama's election may have relieved some of the pessimism, but he--and we--would make a mistake to conclude that a "post-racial" era is upon us. The world of Booker T. Washington, the world that lent him ideas and sensibilities, and that energized him, still lives in some forms in our midst. It is a world of poor, struggling, self-respecting, and intensely proud people who have learned over many years to look to themselves and their communities, and to question the intentions of whites and other people whites have accepted. They have their own interpretations of how the society works, and where the power lies. (Some of them trade in elaborate conspiracy theories: tune in to African American talk radio.) Should Obama fail to develop urban policies that address their needs and aspirations, their patience with him will likely wear thin.
Yet Barack Obama's ability to tackle significantly the challenges of Booker T. Washington's legacies to the twenty-first century will also require him to displace what may be Washington's most encompassing legacy: the framework of "race relations." So long as "race relations" is the principle of social analysis as well as the basis of social description, so long as it organizes the language of social improvement and decline, so long as it is the measure of social progress, we will never be able to have the discussion we need about the sort of society we wish to live in and what we will have to do to bring it about. With every invocation of "race relations"--and we often hear the invocations as observers try to assess the social impact of Obama's presidency--the ghost of Booker T. Washington rears its head. That is not a good thing.
Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author most recently of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press).