Old Negro, new Negro: two recent books look at Booker T. Washington's legacy.
The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations by Michael Rudolph West Columbia University Press, February 2006 $29.50, ISBN 0-231-13048-1
Black Americans have forever labored under binary oppositions: slavery vs. freedom, equality vs. inequality, accommodation vs. agitation. Life has always been, well, black or white. It is little wonder then that similar tensions exist when we attempt to determine who will speak for blacks: Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bill Cosby or the Reverend A1 Sharpton. Two recent books reflect on the legacy of Booker T. Washington and, in the process, offer two more dichotomies for Americans to ponder: Uncle Tom vs. New Negro and "racist proscription" vs. democracy. Far more than simple judgment of Booker T., both books encourage a reconsideration of what it means to be black in America.
Uncle Tom or New Negro? is a reprint of Up From Slavery preceded by 20 interviews in which journalist Rebecca Carroll asked black academic, business and cultural leaders about the legacy of Booker T. Washington. These perceptions vary, from the sympathetic and supportive (most people have read only Up From Slavery, resulting in a "skewed view" of Washington's larger body of ideas) to the scathingly critical ("Basically, he was the overseer of the plantation") to everything in between.
The range of observations, and the easily digested colloquial style in which they are presented, reflects both the intent of the project and the multifarious list of participants, including Ronald Waiters, Elizabeth Gardner Hines, Julianne Malveaux, Gregory S. Bell, John Bryant and many other notables. There were two particularly noteworthy interviews. One, with the award-winning essayist Debra Dickerson, asks how blacks might lay claim to Washington's success without appearing to condone his accommodationism. The other, with the filmmaker Avon Kirkland, insisted that "any leader who does not defend the basic humanity of his people is betraying his people" Since several interviewees advocated "historical context" and a broader reading of Washington, Carroll would have done well to include excerpts from Washington's other writings, as well as some historical information about the period in which he wrote.
As interesting as Carroll's interviews happen to be, Professor West examines the ideas of Washington in a more original and philosophically rigorous manner. In his effort to understand the ideological origins of the Civil Rights Movement, West avoids the presentist inclination to judge Washington as a man or leader, preferring instead to trace his association with the notion of "progress" West's objective, the biography of an idea, is to demonstrate how concern for progress actually retarded the "promise of democracy." The idea at the center of Washington's thinking was "race relations," a proper historical understanding of which explains a great deal: how Booker T. became a pawn for whites rather than a democratically chosen black leader; the overwhelming success of Jim Crow; and the ultimate character of the Civil Rights Movement.
Ultimately, Washington was empowered by whites to consent for blacks "in the dispossession of their rights as American citizens." West contends that it was this ideological construction of race relations---which allowed America to continue to oppress blacks while professing to be humanely concerned---that made Washington historically significant.
Although President Rutherford B. Hayes devised the original formula for race relations, Booker T. Washington perfected it in Atlanta in 1895, thus providing the cure for an age-old problem. "The history of the Negro problem," West asserts, "is the history of an enduring American resolve to naturalize and domesticate treatment that otherwise would be recognized as antithetical to our foundational beliefs." Although the complex style and content of this work can require the reader's full attention, there is little question but that we would be wise to give it.
--Reviewed by R. Owen Williams R. Owen Williams is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University.
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|Title Annotation:||Uncle Tom or New Negro? African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and "Up From Slavery" 100 Years Later; The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations|
|Author:||Williams, R. Owen|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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