Born a slave, Booker T. Washington remembers what “dinnertime” was like as a child.
He wrote in 1906’s Up From Slavery:
“I cannot recall a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire family sat down to the table together, and God’s blessing was asked, and the family ate a meal in a civilized manner. On the plantation in Virginia, and even later, meals were gotten to the children very much as dumb animals get theirs. It was a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there. It was a cup of milk at one time and some potatoes at another.”
He was nine years old when slavery was abolished and the young man not only embraced who he was – what he had been, but was determined to see his people, former slaves, the Negroes of the south, achieve dignity, respect and self worth.
He did so not by militantly confronting segregationists or racists, but by focusing on the education of blacks in the South, working with the Tuskegee Institute and other foundations. He promoted black-owned businesses, schmoozed wealthy, white politicians and deal-makers, and became one of the most vital voices in the transformation of blacks from property to citizens of God – human beings; Americans.
Washington died in 1915, but his 1911 autobiography My Larger Education serves as a testament to the foundations of hard work, empowerment and education. It stands in stark contrast to modern-day civil-rights groups who seek “safe spaces” from racism around every corner and even demand their own kind of “racial segregation” to avoid interacting with the larger community.
It’s a vitally important work, so here are just the first selections from the few pages of his book:
IT HAS been my fortune to be associated all my life with a problem – a hard, perplexing, but important problem. There was a time when I looked upon this fact as a great misfortune. It seemed to me a great hardship that I was born poor, and it seemed an even greater hardship that I should have been born a Negro.
I did not like to admit, even to myself, that I felt this way about the matter, because it seemed to me an indication of weakness and cowardice for any man to complain about the condition he was born to. Later I came to the conclusion that it was not only weak and cowardly, but that it was a mistake to think of the matter in the way in which I had done. I came to see that, along with his disadvantages, the Negro in America had some advantages, and I made up my mind that opportunities that had been denied him from without could be more than made up by greater concentration and power within.
Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean by a fact I learned while I was in school. I recall my teacher’s explaining to the class one day how it was that steam or any other form of energy, if allowed to escape and dissipate itself, loses its value as a power.
Energy must be confined; steam must be locked in a boiler in order to generate power. The same thing seems to have been true in the case of the Negro. Where the Negro has met with discriminations and with difficulties because of his race, he has invariably tended to get up more steam.
When this steam has been rightly directed and controlled, it has become a great force in the upbuilding of the race. If, on the contrary, it merely spent itself in fruitless agitation and hot air, no good has come of it.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the difficulties that the Negro has met since emancipation have, in my opinion, not always, but on the whole, helped him more than they have hindered him. For example, I think the progress which the Negro has made within less than half a century in the matter of learning to read and write the English language has been due in large part to the fact that, in slavery, this knowledge was forbidden him.
My experience and observation have taught me that people who try to withhold the best things in civilization from any group of people, or race of people, not infrequently aid that people to the very things that they are trying to withhold from them.
I am sure that, in my own case, I should never have made the efforts that I did make in my early boyhood to get an education and still later to develop the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama if I had not been conscious of the fact that there were a large number of people in the world who did not believe that the Negro boy could learn or that members of the Negro race could build up and conduct a large institution of learning.
A wider acquaintance with men in all the different grades of life taught me that the Negro’s case is not peculiar.
The majority of successful men are persons who have had difficulties to overcome, problems to master; and, in overcoming those difficulties and mastering those problems, they have gained strength of mind and a clearness of vision that few persons who have lived a life of ease have been able to attain.
Experience has taught me, in fact, that no man should be pitied because, every day in his life, he faces a hard, stubborn problem, but rather that it is the man who has no problem to solve, no hardships to face, who is to be pitied.
His misfortune consists in the fact that he has nothing in his life which will strengthen and form his character; nothing to call out his latent powers, and deepen and widen his hold on life.
It has come home to me more in recent years that I have had, just because my life has been connected with a problem, some unusual opportunities. I have had unusual opportunities for example in getting an education in the broader sense of the word.
If I had not been born a slave, for example, I never could have had the opportunity, perhaps, of associating day by day with the most ignorant people, so far as books are concerned, and thus coming in contact with people of this class at first hand.
The most fortunate part of my early experience was that which gave me the opportunity of getting into direct contact and of communing with and taking lessons from the old class of coloured people who have been slaves.
At the present time few experiences afford me more genuine pleasure than to get a day or a half a day off and go out into the country, miles from town and railroad, and spend the time in close contact with a coloured farmer and his family.
The necessity of collecting large sums of money every year to carry on the work at Tuskegee compelled me to travel much and brought me in contact with all kinds of people. As soon as I began to meet educated and cultivated people, people who had had the advantage of study in higher institutions of learning, as well as the advantages of much reading and travel, I soon became conscious of my own disadvantages.
I found that the people I met were able to speak fluently and with perfect familiarity about a great many things with which I was acquainted in only the vaguest sort of way. In speaking they used words and phrases from authors whom I had never read and often never heard of. All this made me feel more keenly my deficiencies, and the more I thought about it the more it troubled, and worried me.
It made me feel all the more badly because I discovered that, if I were to carry on the work I had undertaken to do, if I was ever going to accomplish any of the things that it seemed to me important to do, I should never find time, no matter how diligent and studious I might be, to overtake them and possess myself of the knowledge and familiarity with books for which I envied those persons who had been more highly educated than myself.
After a time, however, I found that while I was at a certain disadvantage among highly educated and cultivated people in certain directions, I had certain advantages over them in others. I found that the man who has an intimate acquaintance with some department of life through personal experience has a great advantage over persons who have gained their knowledge of life almost entirely through books.
I found also that, by using my personal experience and observation; by making use of the stories that I had heard, as illustrations; by relating some incident that happened in my own case or some incident that I had heard from some one else, I could frequently express what I had to say in a much clearer and more impressive way than if I made use of the language of books or the statements and quotations from the authors of books.
More than that, as I reflected upon the matter, I discovered that these authors, in their books, were, after all merely making use of their own experiences or expressing ideas which they had worked out in actual life, and that to make use of their language and ideas was merely to get life second hand.
The empowerment of Washington, his ability to overcome all that was set before him, is a testament to his character and strength of will.
If only leaders at Black Lives Matter could take a page from this American Icon.