“Uncle Tom.” Among African-Americans there is no bigger insult. Originally used to denote a black man all too willing to submit to campaigns of racial terrorism in order to save his own skin, today the term is most often used to smear those deemed “unauthentic” in their “blackness.” The silliness of the former charge notwithstanding, the real absurdity of the term today is that the historical figure most often cited as a living symbol of this epithet is a man who’s “authentic blackness” cannot be seriously questioned—and who’s refusal to play by the rules of the State often spat in the fate of the sweeping progressivism so dominant among many whites of his era.
A former slave, Southern patriot, neo-agrarian capitalist, and founder of the famed Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington is perhaps the most unfairly maligned figure in American history. In an age where revisionist history has become the norm, and consensus accounts are usually viewed critically, the standard appraisal of Washington has largely stayed the same. Heavily influenced by Washington’s primary ideological rival W.E.B. Du Bois (a man Washington once offered a job), these histories always seem to paint Washington as an accommodationist of the worst aspects of the post-Civil War South—and often as an outright opponent of his people.
The recent book “Up From History” by Robert Norrell attempts to fill this void, and to a large degree, is successful. Though Norrell is clearly sympathetic to Washington, he does not pull punches that need to be thrown and his overall assessment provides the reader with a detailed and rich portrait of a complex and decidedly conservative figure, who for nearly twenty years was the unquestioned “leader” of his race in the United States.
Outlining the life of the often-controversial Washington is not easy and there are many gaps. There is very little on young Booker and his personal experiences as a slave. Norrell does an admirable job making what he can of Booker’s personal life, but Washington’s admirable trait of keeping private matters private does not lend itself to a thorough treatment of his personal relationships.
But in not conforming to the tired pattern of many pop biographies, Norrell largely avoids the armchair psychologist routines that have ruined histories written by bigger names. More to the point in establishing a framework through which one may analyze the actual Washington, the mythical anti-hero morphs into a titan of “economic independence and self-help.”
Though it would be unfair to call the leading proponent of “industrial education” a Luddite, there is no question that Washington saw land ownership as the key to uplifting blacks. A harsh opponent of unionization, in the soil Booker saw a path to independence that could not be achieved if one was confined by factory walls. One can only imagine what he would have thought of the cubicle.
Still the popular perception that the Tuskegee Institute was primarily an agricultural school is false. Though Washington often let his donors assume this was true, the real purpose of the school was to provide teachers for communities in desperate need of grassroots economic development. As a firm believer that economic interdependence would require whites to act in moral and mutually beneficial ways toward blacks, Washington was right to promote a communal approach to racial uplift. Contemporary globalists would be appalled, but his contemporaries were not.
In actuality, the Tuskegee Institute was arguably the most magnificent expression of the Do-It-Yourself ethic one could find anywhere at the turn of the 20th century. Few other schools were as self-sufficient, and no other campus was built from the ground up by its students. While its bigness would pose problems later on, the value of Tuskegee can in part be revealed in its enrollment, which at various points dwarfed that of Auburn and the University of Alabama—combined.
In building such a successful alternative institution, Washington was playing with fire. Race antagonists surrounded him and Norrell’s favored term for them—“White Nationalists”—hardly seems inappropriate. Washington’s refusal to fuel the fires of the Klan or demagoguing, race-obsessed white politicians, was an attitude that guaranteed his vision for “race improvement”—based on broadly materialist grounds—would at least have a chance of getting off the ground.
Not surprisingly this drew the fire of critics from within “the race,” a large number of whom coveted the status and supposed influence of Washington and “The Institute.” Symbolically represented in the cruel visage of the Leninist and faux-black nationalist W.E.B. Du Bois, those who opposed Washington worked night and day to portray the man as a slave-like buffoon, completely beholden to his white masters. In turning his wildly successful Atlanta Exposition speech into a quasi-endorsement of segregation, these propagandists willfully missed the point of Washington’s now infamous line:
In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.
Denizens of modern day New York City live in arrangements that closely fit those sketched by Washington above, and no one bats an eye. More importantly however, is the fact that Booker was not calling for a State-enforced segregation policy. He was not calling for segregation at all. Washington was simply noting that blacks didn’t need whites to define their lives or black worth. The lives of African-Americans, and their quality, should be defined by black men, for black men, and integrationist schemes that would dilute this integral independence were counter-productive. It is true that Booker was ultimately an integrationist of sorts, but he was not an “accommodationist.” While the difference is a matter of degree—that difference is a chasm—too large to ignore and worthy of its own category.
It is true, as Norrell writes, that “few men in an open society get to set the terms for the historical memory of their avowed enemy, but W.E.B. Du Bois was one who did,” and we are all the worse for it. In denigrating Washington’s name, Du Bois and his allies sought to wreck the traditional view of post-Civil War blacks—a view that was diametrically opposed to that of the white paternalists that ran Du Bois precious NAACP from the outset. According to Du Bois, these professional liberals were to form a vanguard with a “talented tenth” of the black population, in order to “improve the race” through trickle-down bureaucratic management—and these phony radicals did far more to slow down the progress of poor blacks than any speech given by Mr. Washington or his thousands of followers and supporters.
Conservative critics that cite Washington’s willingness to utilize government on behalf of his self-help agenda are standing on shaky ground as well, as these instances were rare. The Tuskegee Institute was funded primarily through private donations and philanthropy. Despite the fact that the school’s heyday was in the midst of the Progressive Era, Washington never asked for federal favors. Much to the annoyance of the “talented tenthers,” Washington eschewed forced integration schemes, and purchased the land the school owned rather than relying on the favored eminent domain tactics of the period. At times, the activities of the school and Washington were so radically anti-Statist, today they would recognized as libertarian. Lots of contemporary anarcho-capitalists theorize about private roads. Washington actually built them.
When and where Washington did promote government expansion, it was always as a defense of black taxpayers who were getting little or nothing for their “contributions” to the State. And while it is true that Washington made expanding public education for American blacks a major facet of his cause, it is hard to imagine the man from Tuskegee advocating for consolidated school districts, let alone the Department of Education.
Ironically, Washington’s greatest fault was the same of that of so many self-identified conservatives today—a blinding faith in a Republican Party, led by a messianic warmonger, totally uninterested in the desires of his constituency. By trading political favors and advising the truly awful Teddy Roosevelt, Washington corrupted his name during an era when his message was needed most.
And yet an excess of loyalty is not something one can condemn without a hint of admiration. In staying true to his friends Booker made his biggest errors, but also showed he was human, in a time when the emerging elites were defined by their inhumanity. One can find many faults with Washington, to be sure, but does the punishment fit the crime? Clearly not.
The relegation of Washington to pariah of his race is a gross injustice, which, thankfully, Norrell does much to correct. There is much to Norrell’s book that is not favorable to Washington, but to focus on that would miss the broader point.
Just as the black capitalist, Afro-nationalist Marcus Garvey became a “fraud” and the Second Amendment practitioner Robert Williams became a “communist,” their authentically black conservative forefather became the quintessential “Uncle Tom.” Not because he kowtowed to terror or because he was not sufficiently black—but because he challenged real power in the name of those who were black.
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