I have a lot of respect for Mr. Washington and what he did, however “Up From Slavery” was at best a disappointment, at worst tragic if he really believed and thought the way it seems in the book. The book itself wasn’t written as a book, it was written as a series of writings/essays/etc. He received feedback and criticism as he had them published and you could tell in the book how some of the tone and what he talked about shifted.
I liked the first portion of the book, recounting the life as a child slave and then how he went to get his education and the struggles he faced. I was a bit caught off guard about the rosey glow he gave that time of his life, but I didn’t think too much about it until I got further in the book.
The portions I didn’t like were more numerous. First and foremost I disliked how he talked about other African Americans in general. There was a lot of innuendo that they tended to be lazy and how unlikely they would to get ahead without “hard labor”. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is value in labor, but it felt like he was infantilizing/putting down black people. As he got further in the book it was even more apparent, and my assumption is the later parts of the book were his views after criticisms from some of the white people he knew.
Second, I disliked how there was constant reference to the white people in his life and how they always saved the day. Never a negative word, and in places almost an unnerving obeisance to those people. He stressed the generosity of the white people far more than any positives from his own.
This all wraps up in Washington’s silence about the brutality and cruelty of slavery. He even at one point in time mentioned that the black man got as much out of slavery as the white man and made the black man more capable of himself. In addition the simplistic almost happy way he talks about his experiences as a child under slavery stunned me as an almost complicit about slavery feel.
He even mentions once that the Ku Klux Klan was gone forever. He never once mentions the disenfranchisement of his people, the lynchings and second class citizen status. I have a hard time believing that he never suffered from it himself since he didn’t come from money. That is until I got to the last half of the book.
The last half of the book gave me an idea of why he might have written all about this, in this manner. The last half of the book reads more like a person campaigning for donations for his school, and at that time the most likely place to get money would be from rich white people. If you take that pessimistic view, then the book makes perfect sense. It gives a little bit of background without offending the whites who he is seeking donations from.
That doesn’t make him a bad person. His drive to educate his people was unquestionable and if this was his way to try and gain more donations for them then I can’t blame him at all. That being said at best this book was a disappointment, and if he truly believed the stuff he talked about it was tragic.