Acclaimed in its day as a landmark autobiography, Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery (1901) remains one of the most influential and controversial accounts of black life in the United States. In the work, Washington—educator, social critic, and founder of Tuskegee Institute—praised the virtues of thrift, patience, and industrial training and drew lavish praise from white reviewers, who hailed it as a classic American success story. Others, however, believed that Washington's rags-to-riches tale, written while he was living in Alabama, failed to hold white racism fully accountable for the condition of blacks in the South. For these readers, Washington's program of racial uplift was too conciliatory, and his vision of black economic success at the expense of social advancement or political power was too narrow. Despite the debate about whether the values espoused in Up From Slavery ought to be praised or condemned, Washington's autobiography defined, as no other work did, the course of African American public life in the early years of the twentieth century.
Employing direct prose and lively anecdotes, Up From Slavery depicts Washington's rise from enslavement to prominent educator. His narrative is marked by memorable set pieces, most famous among them an account of Washington's 500-mile walk from the West Virginia coal mines to the Virginia coast so that he could attend Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Several literary critics have pointed out that many of these set pieces echo the autobiographies of Ben Franklin and Frederick Douglass. Such intentional comparisons helped Washington establish his credentials as a self-made man in both the American and African American traditions, thereby widening the appeal of his autobiography. Moreover, as Franklin and Douglass did, Washington held himself up as a model for others to follow. His purpose, however, was not self-promotion; rather, Washington encouraged others to emulate his good manners and patient pursuit of industrial education so that he could promote the cause of Tuskegee Institute. The Tuskegee chapters are at the heart of Washington's story, and his moving and optimistic account of the school's astounding success bears testament to the values he advocated.
After reading Up From Slavery, William Dean Howells, the most prominent literary critic of the early twentieth century, hailed Washington as "an Afro-American
of unsurpassed usefulness, and an exemplary citizen." Intended solely as praise, Howells's remarks draw attention to the difficulties
of assessing the legacy of Washington's autobiography. Washington was, in many ways, an exemplary citizen, and Up From Slavery tells an inspiring story of a self-made man who devoted his life to helping others pursue their own self-making. In this
way, he is the quintessential American and Up From Slavery a quintessential American autobiography. But if Washington was an exemplary citizen, he was also a man of "unsurpassed usefulness"
to the racial status quo. However successful his policy of co-operation was in building an institution such as Tuskegee, Up From Slavery promoted a vision of racial harmony that required blacks to disregard their desires for racial equality. Oscillating between
self assertion and racial accommodation, Up From Slavery is both appealing and frustrating, and thereby embodies an important dynamic in the history of American race relations.
Brundage, W. Fizthugh. "Up From Slavery" by Booker T. Washington: With R elated Documents. New York: St. Martin's, 2003.
Carroll, Rebecca. Uncle Tom or New Negro?: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and "Up From Slavery" 100 Years Later. New York: Harlem Moon, 2006.
Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
West, Michael Rudolph. The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
Published June 5, 2008
Last updated March 3, 2011