Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Evaluating Booker T. Washington

Kelefa Sanneh's piece on Booker T. Washington in the February 2 issue of The New Yorker (available only in abstract form online) is a solid reconsideration of this complex man. It's hard to feel more ambivalent toward a historical figure than I do about Washington. Here was a man who basically told his people to stop fighting for civil rights, accept segregation, and work hard. On the other hand, here was a man trying to improve the lives of African-Americans in rural Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who had to work within the system to survive.

There are two common views of Washington, depending on who you talk to. For some, he is an ideal person to raise into the pantheon of great African-Americans. I was talking to a student the other day who is also an elementary school teacher. In her school, pictures of Washington adorn the walls during Black History Month. He stressed education, working hard, and raising yourself up by your bootstraps. He was the first African-American to eat dinner with the president (Theodore Roosevelt). He was a groundbreaker. Therefore, he is a hero.

The other common view is that Washington was a sellout. This view holds that W.E.B. DuBois is a much greater role model than Washington because he urged organizing for fight for equal political, social, and economic rights. Washington knelt before the white man and accepted whatever crumbs the master threw from the table and told his people to do the same. His views were increasingly discredited during his own lifetime and completely dismissed after World War II. His institution, Tuskegee, was used by the military to conduct venereal disease experiments of African Americans without their knowledge, which seems to sum up Washington in a poetic but sad way.

I have trouble disagreeing with either one of these views. I do think Washington was something of a sellout. On the other hand, several years ago I had an hour long argument with an activist friend of mine defending Washington against these very charges. Washington was working in rural Alabama. It was real easy for DuBois to call for the fight when he spent most of his life in the North. If Washington used DuBois' rhetoric, not only would his funding have gone away, but his life would have been in danger. On the other hand, maybe he should have moved to the North and tried to take as many African-Americans as possible with him. Things weren't that much better in the North, but they could hardly have been worse than in the Black Belt at the turn of the twentieth century.

I find Washington's inclusion on pantheon of acceptable African-Americans to discuss in schools very interesting. This same student said that DuBois is nowhere to be found on school walls. This almost reinforces the negative views of Washington. He's acceptable to teach because he is utterly unchallenging. No Malcolm X he! He's like the sanitized version of Martin Luther King that dominates schoolchildren's (and then adults') understanding of King, except that it's pretty much realistic for Washington.

Ultimately it's really hard to judge Washington either way. One could excuse his public statements, noting his location, need for funding, and behind the scenes work against lynching more easily if he actually didn't seem to believe them himself. Sanneh suggests that he did seem to often work for himself rather than his people. He frequently used common black stereotypes to talk about African-Americans. He fought vigorously against any challenges to his authority and truly believed that he was "the black president" as people called him after he met Roosevelt. He wasn't above bribing newspapers and intimidating people who stood in his way.

To fall back on the old historians' cop-out, Booker T. Washington was an extremely complex man who defies easy depiction. His supporters and detractors are almost equally valid in their portrayal of him. Thinking hard about Washington again reminds me of the unbelievably bizarre, twisted, and depressing history of race relations in the United States, when a man like Washington can be incredibly brave and a complete sellout at the exact same time.