Review: The Education of Booker T. Washington

The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations. By Michael Rudolph West. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Pp. xxxi, 274)

ImageMichael West fleshes out the historical legacy of Booker T. Washington while providing us with a picture of his political and social context. He dismantles the multiple mythical figures of Washington and constructs in its place the intellectual history of “race relations,” the center piece of what he calls, “Washingtonianism.” What the concept lacks in rhetorical elegance it makes up for by its explanatory power: West argues that Washington’s theory of race relations rests on the premise that reconciliation between the races is the basic ground for progress. West emphasizes the generational specificity of Washington’s political imagination, and convincingly shows how his experience after the abolition of slavery and dashed hopes during the period of Reconstruction deeply informed Washington’s declarations about social progress. West insists that Washington was not a “conservative,”  rather his “radical idealism” lay on unsteady ground, i.e., a belief in the good will of American whites, but it was an idealistic vision nonetheless. It was radical, in that Washington hoped to create the conditions for the enjoyments of all privileges and rights by both white and black Americans. Instead, Washington’s ideas and support for a “separate but equal” philosophy where mobilized by reformers and conservatives alike in ways that continue to obscure the roots of American inequality today.

I wanted to read more of West’s thoughts on the mis/reinterpretation of Washington by black nationalists like Marcus Garvey. Although West makes good use of the Dubois/Washington dichotomy and how it manifests in the twentieth century’s popular imagination, he doesn’t go into great detail about Garvey’s use of Washington, its reception, and legacy and how it might help us understand the legacy of Washington’s thought. Clearly the emphasis of the book is the theory of “race relations” not “racial separatism” but these are opposite sides of the same coin. An engagement of both concurrently would have been fruitful. The overall arch of the discussion is reminiscent of Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership — an oldie but a goodie. Although Cruise is perhaps less interested in redeeming “democracy” (a term West ought to define in the beginning of his book). Nonetheless, West’s sharply penned work is exemplary at showing how the caricature of Booker T. Washington reveals a fundamental ambivalence about “progress” in the American nineteenth century.

Booker T. Washington (center, right) listens to Theodore Roosevelt (center, left) deliver a speech on stage in Tuskegee, Alabama. On June 24, 1896, Washington became the first African American to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University.

Booker T. Washington (center, right) listens to Theodore Roosevelt (center, left) deliver a speech on stage in Tuskegee, Alabama . On June 24, 1896, Washington became the first African American to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University.

Washington often talked about the embrace of manual labor as a virtue — in opposition to the fetishization of education as providing an “easy way out” from the hardships of a newly attained freedom. Here perhaps there could have been a more solid intervention by West: this presented an opportunity to investigate how concepts of industriousness and social independence throughout labor (although not labor in the cities) animated Washington’s political imagination. West writes that Washington was inconsistent about his portrayal of the black race as most industrious, or less industrious etc. (97), but in his very telling (and damning) quote that “notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did,” Washington seems to imply that slavery served as a kind of labor-training for American blacks (a notion he also contradicts in other statements). Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to pull this thread of Washington’s thought and see what it reveals about his vision of blacks as part of the working class. Washington was notably vocal in his opposition to strikes and labor unrest in general, and I wonder how these two pieces of his thought fit together in his self-understanding.

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