le 15 janvier 2014
The book is old and the man is from his time. We are attracted to him because Marcus Garvey made him his star, though he could never meet him. He might have been surprised if Booker T. Washington had explained some of his ideas that would have made Marcus Garvey go awry due to his own convictions.
A TESTIMONY OF THE SECOND HALF OF THE 19th CENTURY
This book is first of all a testimony about the period starting in something like 1855 and ending in 2001. It covers the last five or six years of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and then the beginning of segregation accompanied by Jim-Crowism, the Ku Klux Klan, systematic lynchings and the first racial riots mostly caused by the decision of Southern whites to disfranchise the Blacks, i.e. cross them off the voting lists, making them citizens without the right to vote. This period is fascinating since it is the transition from open slavery to vicious domination and systematic segregation, a situation that was called apartheid in South Africa one century or so later. The motto of this white domination is simple: “Equal but separate” which will be deemed in the 1950s by the US Supreme Court as separate for sure and therefore unequal.
Booker T. Washington was born from a black mother and a white man whose identity he does not know, except that he was from another plantation than his mother’s. In other words she was purely raped by some white man who happened to come across her one day. Maybe even more than one man. Booker T. Washington’s account of this fact is extremely tactful if not “prudent”:
“Of my father I know even less than of my mother. I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man who lived on one of the near-by plantations. Whoever he was, I never heard of his taking the least interest in me or providing in any way for my rearing. But I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation happily had engrafted upon it at that time.” (p. 12)
Though the final clause is not clear (what is the final “it”?) the least we can say is that the rape is not identified as such, the rapist is shown as a victim, and though that rapist does nothing to help raise the kid after the end of slavery Booker T. Washington seems to imply that this rapist should and would have maybe eventually taken some interest. This rapist was obviously unwilling and he might even not be aware of the child being his child, or even of the very existence of the child. But this gives the tone of the book. Slavery is in a way just erased in any harsh unredeemable detail. It sure speaks of poverty, the obligation to work as soon as one was able to stand, the lack of food and other everyday amenities like clothing and hygiene.
“One may get the idea, from what I have said, that there was bitter feeling toward the white people on the part of my race. . . In the case of the slaves on our place this was not true, and it was not true of any large portion of the slave population in the South where the N**** was treated with anything like decency.” (page 17)
During the Civil War he insists on the faithfulness of the slaves who could be entrusted with all kinds of missions like hiding and keeping safe the silver and other valuables of the “big house” of the slave owners, their masters. He is conscious that what he says is recklessly untrue but we never know if it is irony, sarcasm even, or simply the desire not to displease the whites.
“Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the ”freedom” in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.” (page 22)
We really find it hard to believe the slave owners and their repressive personnel were that gullible to even ask or accept an explanation. They have been vastly depicted since then, and even had been at the time, as whipping first and asking questions afterwards and whipping again if the answers displeased them. The conclusion then is absolutely unrealistic about the state of mind of the blacks after the Civil War:
“. . . there was no feeling of bitterness. In fact, there was pity among the slaves for our former owners.” (page 22)
All that leads to the remark that the ex-slaves were disoriented and accepted any kind of contract to stay on the plantations:
“Besides, deep down in their hearts there was a strange and peculiar attachment to “old Marster” and “old Missus,” and to their children, which they found it hard to think of breaking off. With these they had spent in some cases nearly a half-century, and it was no light thing to think of parting. Gradually, one by one, stealthily at first, the older slaves began to wander from the slave quarters back to the “big house” to have a whispered conversation, with their former owners as to the future.” (page 23) “. . . many of the older slaves, especially, returned to their old homes and made some kind of contract with their former owners by which they remained on the estate.” (page 24)
This is the proof that what we call today the Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome has been and still is a tremendously deep and powerful mental and psychological alienation and dependence. We are sure Booker T. Washington was aware of this and was only being polite and diplomatic, though it reveals a high level of Jim-Crowism in his attitude. His real consciousness appears here and there with some remark that may be captured as humorous, but a very dark and black type of humor indeed:
“[one colored man] said that he had been born in Virginia, and sold into Alabama in 1845. I asked him how many were sold at the same time. He said, ‘There were five of us; myself and brother and three mules.’” (page 76)
This corresponds to what we know today: slaves were classified at the same level as mules, that is to say under horses and over cattle. But it is definitely not black humor when he denies the existence of the Ku Klux Klan.
“It was while my home was at Malden [after the Civil War up to 1978] that what was known as the “Ku Klux Klan” was in the height of its activity. . . They corresponded somewhat to the “patrollers” of whom I used to hear a great deal during the days of slavery when I was a small boy. . . Like the “patrollers” the “Ku Klux” operated almost wholly at night. They were however more cruel than the “patrollers.” . . . The “Ku Klux” period was, I think, the darkest part of the Reconstruction days. . . To-day  there are no such organizations in the South, and the fact that such ever existed is almost forgotten by both races. There are few places in the South where public sentiment would permit such organizations to exist.” (pages 54-55)
It is always indirectly that he alludes to the real reality of this time. When he tries in 1998 to contact President McKinley he does speak of “several race riots which had occurred at different points in the South.” (page 183) The worst one was in Wilmington, North Carolina, where the whites burnt down to the ground the black newspaper, the Daily Record, causing a riot that lasted a week and cost at least fourteen black lives, the banishment of all black leaders and the disfranchisement of black previously registered electors.
It is important to understand this position in order to ask the proper question: how could this ex-slave, the son of a woman who was raped by an unidentified white man come to such a submissive, conciliatory position? Is he betraying his people or does he have another agenda? That’s the question I would like to answer.
BOOKER T. WASHINGTON AND EDUCATION
His ideal is pedagogical. He built from scratch a school for black students of any age and sex. It was managed by blacks, devised for blacks and constructed by blacks themselves though with a lot of support and contributions from the Alabama State Legislature, the John Slater Fund and the Peabody Fund on a regular basis, and many big contributors from the North as well as many small or smaller ones from the South. His objective is to educate his pupils in their hands, their heads and their hearts. The students have to learn the value of physical work and they have to cultivate the fields of the school for food, work all the services of everyday life (laundry, cleaning up, cooking, etc.), on one hand, and/or work in the various industries of the school (brick making, joining and carpentering, masonry and construction, etc.) in order to build the various buildings of the school or produce amenities like bricks that can be sold on the local market or beyond. The idea is that the students have to work in order to get a salary (and all work for the school gets wages) and thus be able to pay for their boarding and other expenses including tuition. They then learn a useful trade and they cover the expenses of their studies.
“In our industrial teaching we keep three things in mind:
• first, that the student shall be so educated that he shall be enabled to meet conditions as they exist now, in the part of the South where he lives—in a word, to be able to do the thing which the world wants done;
• second, that every student who graduates from the school shall have enough skill, coupled with intelligence and moral character, to enable him to make a living for himself and others;
• third, to send every graduate out feeling and knowing that labor is dignified and beautiful—to make each one love labor instead of trying to escape it.
In addition to the agricultural training which we give to young men, and the training given to our girls in all the usual domestic employments, we now train a number of girls in agriculture each year. These girls are taught gardening, fruit-growing, dairying, bee-culture, and poultry-raising.” (page 188, bullets are mine for emphasis)
Thus the students have to learn how to be flexible and adaptable to concrete real circumstances. Then they have to demonstrate various skills, intelligence, moral character and economic independence. Finally they have to accept work is beautiful and never under the dignity of any human being. The only remark we can do today is that women were trained as seamstresses, cooks, and other supposedly female trades and as for agriculture the menial or easier, less physical jobs like poultry-raising. But at the time this sexism was quite progressive since it enabled women to have a trade of their own and not be dependent on their husbands, and/or to contribute to the family economy.
BOOKER T. WASHINGTON’S MERITOCRACY
That’s where we meet with his meritocracy. He expresses it over and over again in this book.
“My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what color of skin merit is found.” (page 97) “Any man, regardless of color, with be recognized and rewarded just in proportion as he learns to do something well – learns to do it better than someone else – however humble the thing may be.” (page 169) “No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward. This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified.” (page 170)
The last quotation implies that reward can be refused, at least for some time. Page 34 he specifies that retention with the phrase “in the long run.” The least we can say is that the long run was very long and is still running in some instances for the blacks in the USA.
But he seems to approve of this delay in rewarding an effort. It is in fact slightly more complex and the limitation of his thinking is clear when he speaks of the ballot and basic civil rights.
“During the next half-century and more, my race must continue passing through the severe American crucible. We are to be tested
• in our patience,
• our forbearance,
• our perseverance,
• our power
to endure wrong,
to withstand temptations,
to acquire and use skill;
• in our ability
to succeed in commerce,
o the superficial for the real,
o the appearance for the substance,
o great and yet small,
o learned and yet simple,
o high and yet the servant of all.” (pages 180-181, my laying out for emphasis)
The least we can say is that the blacks, his “race,” will have to satisfy many conditions concerning plain civil rights and the tests are numerous on this crucible. And that is only valid for the blacks. And his assertion of his belief in universal and free suffrage is vastly cooled down by all the conditions to fulfill and all the protections to set up.
“My own belief is . . . that the time will come when the N**** in the South will be accorded all the political rights which his ability, character, and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to the N**** by the Southern white people themselves, and that they will protect him in the exercise of those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling that it is being forced by "foreigners," or "aliens," to do something which it does not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that I have indicated is going to begin. In fact, there are indications that it is already beginning in a slight degree. (page 142-143) “In my opinion, the time will come when the South will encourage all of its citizens to vote. It will see that it pays better, from every standpoint, to have healthy, vigorous life than to have that political stagnation which always results when one-half of the population has no share and no interest in the Government. . . As a rule, I believe in universal, free suffrage, but I believe that in the South we are confronted with peculiar conditions that justify the protection of the ballot in many of the states, for a while at least, either by an education test, a property test, or by both combined; but whatever tests are required, they should be made to apply with equal and exact justice to both races.” (page 144)
This reveals how dominated, alienated Booker T. Washington was by his slavery heritage. He is typically trying to cope with his Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome by trying to find a common terrain with the dominant whites, an historical compromise that would enable him to succeed in this life and yet do something useful to the blacks in this society without exposing the slavery of the past and its heritage today, not to speak of the Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome itself that he could of course not know at all.
The last point I would like to make here is going to confirm what I have just said. In Hampton, the school he got his education from, he was entrusted, after a couple years of teaching in his home town, with taking care of a group of Indians that had been brought to the Institute to be educated. He believes it is possible but in fact he follows a strategy that brings their deculturalization to a final point and he only aims at acculturating them into English and the proper American behavior.
“Few people then had any confidence in the ability of the Indians to receive education and to profit by it.” (page 65) “Whenever they were asked to do so, the N**** students gladly took the Indians as room-mates, in order that they might teach them to speak English and to acquire civilized habits.” (page 66)
That is exactly what is missing in his vision of the Blacks, not as a “race,” a term that should be rejected, but as a cultured community, a community that shares a heritage. The black students have to learn how to integrate themselves into the American society by integrating the American culture into themselves. In his approach of the blacks there is no mention whatsoever of their African heritage. The music that is so important for these black people, the polyrhythmic African heritage in music that is unique to African music, is not exploited, not considered at all. Music is vaguely mentioned, on the sly and marginally, two or three times. All other aspects of African heritage that the slaves had retained in spite of all are not considered. And that was the only set of means that saved them in the total depersonalization and deculturalization slavery submitted them to in line with what Willie Lynch told the very first English settlers at the beginning of the 18th century, hardly one century after the arrival of the first English settlers in Virginia (1607) and the first black slaves in that colony (1619).
The specific linguistic production of these black people is at most used here and there as a sign of their lack of education. No sports are mentioned for these young men and young women, no sports whatsoever, which is surprising since sport is important in the maturation process of a young person, but also because those physical strength, stamina and resistance that enabled these Africans to survive slavery were also an African heritage: long distance running for example was part of their dozens of millennia of anthropological growth and development. That was in fact deeply embedded in their genes and body architecture. These black people are reduced to two periods. Before, and it means slavery and only one at most two generations (Booker T. Washington did not know his grandmother), and then now, and it means the American reality in which the blacks are supposed to blend themselves, become invisible, which is impossible anyway, but that is the objective.
“. . . The whole future of the N**** rested largely upon the question as to whether or not he should make himself, through his skill, intelligence, and character, of such undeniable value to the community in which he lived that the community could not dispense with his presence. I said that any individual who learned to do something better than anybody else—learned to do a common thing in an uncommon manner—had solved his problem, regardless of the color of his skin, and that in proportion as the N**** learned to produce what other people wanted and must have, in the same proportion would he be respected.” (page 124)
To become indispensible so that people will neither consider nor see your color.
To conclude we have to say this pedagogical approach is essential from a general point of view. It is an extremely modern idea to balance practical crafts and theoretical learning. The only thing that is missing in this approach is the interest or interests of the students which is or are the main incentive for their motivation. This modern approach of education was identical to the approach Makarenko was to develop in the USSR after World War I for all the young drifters that had to be educated out of drifting and into social life. In our modern educational system in western countries, we are still very far from understanding this necessary balance between kinesthetic, aesthetic, artistic, theoretical and physical activities, all rooting themselves in the students’ interests.
As such Booker T. Washington is essential. But it is the very lack of the students’ interests as the starting point of the educational process that leads him to neglecting the African heritage that is just natural for them though it should be worked on in depth. That would also mean to process the past and this heritage to go as far back as possible to give some historical perspective coming from far behind in the past. In other words he is a precursor (and follower) of the good old western educational system that considers we need to have a syllabus first and then the students are supposed to assimilate that syllabus. If you start from their interests and their heritage, you have to target this central domain and open it onto subjects and topics that the students did not know existed or in which they were not interested. In many western countries they develop a playful pedagogy based on the pleasure of games or whatever other tricks that are just funny and pleasant. This is also a way to avoid asking the central question: what are the interests and heritage of each particular student. To please is not necessarily to widen the mind and interest of a student. In fact it is working essentially on what the student already likes and finds funny or pleasant. It is deeply uncreative.
Booker T. Washington did not make that mistake but he remained very western-centered when he put down his syllabus or syllabi and the students had to follow them, though he knew that to make the student learn and practice crafts they had to be motivated by the gain they got out of it, their financial interest. But this interest is slightly drifting away from the interest or interests I was speaking of before and they can or have to be in the plural for each particular student who necessarily has more than one interest in life.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU