American Dream and Hope in “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington

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“It is common for a book to contain a title that has noting to do literally with the actual content, a title that leads readers to content that is different from what they expect, or a title that is referenced little in the actual book. In Up From Slavery: An Autobiography, Booker T. Washington recalled important events in his life, from his childhood as a slave, to his struggle for an education, to his success with Tuskegee Institute. Washington downplayed the role of slavery in the book by discussing his life as a slave exclusively in the first chapter, mentioning little about the hardships of slavery, and showcasing many examples of friendliness of the freed slaves toward their former masters.

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Regardless, he still titled his autobiography Up From Slavery. The title Up From Slavery is significant because it reveals Washington’s life as an ascent from slavery how manual labor and the virtues associated with it can help people achieve prosperity, and Washington’s desire to reconcile ethnic relations.

The autobiography retells Booker T. Washington’s advancement from being a slave to being one of the most well known and admired people in the nation. The title is intended to show how Washington, one of America’s foremost educators at the time, came from humble beginnings and worked hard to achieve his goals. As Washington recalls, “[I]t was hard for me to realize that I was to be honored by a degree from the oldest and most renowned university in America … my life as a slave, … my work in the coal mine, the times when I was without food and clothing, when I made my bed under a sidewalk … all this passed before me and nearly overcame me” (Washington Chapter XVI). As he got a letter from Harvard telling him to come and receive his honorary degree, he recalled all of the struggles he experienced to get there, from his life as a slave, to his experiences in drudgery, to his attempts to get an education. This reflection helped Washington recall that success can only be achieved through hard, gradual work, helping Washington shape his view of the importance of manual labor in education. Thus, the title Up From Slavery hinted to readers that the book will be about how one of the most important people in America at the time worked hard to rise up from unfortunate circumstances.

Booker T. Washington uses manual labor, commonly associated with the drudgery of slavery, for self-advancement, and he believes that manual labor is important for building character. His curriculum at Hampton and his philosophy for Tuskegee both emphasize the importance of manual labor for building character. He recalled, “[W]e wanted to be careful not to educate our students out of sympathy with agricultural life, so that they would be attracted from the country to the cities and yield to the temptation of trying to live by their wits” (Washington Chapter VIII). Washington believed that manual labor promotes virtues that encourage satisfaction, and if people lost their connection to labor, their character would decline. When Washington remembered Miss Mary Mackie of Hampton Institute, he recalled, “It was hard for me at this time to understand how a woman of her education and social standing could take such delight in performing such service, in order to assist in the elevation of an unfortunate race” (Washington Chapter IV). Through this example, Washington remembered how he learned that labor is not a disgrace, but that it promotes humility, honesty, selflessness, and a job well done. From his experiences, Booker T. Washington learned and believed that manual labor strengthens character traits that benefit all people, establishing the significance of the title Up From Slavery.

One of Booker T. Washington’s main goals in his actions was to reconcile former slaves with white Americans. Throughout the book, Washington shed light to many examples of freed slaves being courteous to their former masters and he attempted to appeal to white Americans as much as possible without harming the dignity of his own ethnic group. According to Washington, “[T]he thing that was uppermost in my mind was the desire to say something that would cement the friendship of the races and bring about hearty cooperation between them” (Washington Chapter XIV). This quote summarizes Washington’s mission. As a result, he shunned movements that attempt to empower African-Americans at the expense of white Americans, and he took a gradual approach to ethnic justice. His life was an illustration of this, as it was not a quick ascent but a slow process of education and hard work. Washington wanted other freed slaves to gradually rise up so that their businesses and trades would grow economically to the point where white Americans could not ignore them. Therefore, Booker T. Washington titled his biography Up From Slavery to demonstrate to readers that gradual economic ascent, rather than political action, was the best way for African-Americans to reconcile with white Americans.

The title Up From Slavery demonstrated Booker T. Washington’s hope of African-American progress from slavery through manual labor to prosperity and reconciliation. It revealed how one of America’s foremost educators achieved his goals, even though he was born a slave and he worked hard to advance himself. It also proved that hard labor, commonly associated with slavery and indignity, is important in advancing prosperity and virtue. Lastly, it demonstrated how freed slaves could ascend from being slaves of white Americans to being reconciled with white Americans. Even though the actual book downplayed slavery, Up From Slavery is significant because it teaches that anyone, regardless of their ethnic background, can partake in the American dream.”

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American Dream and Hope in "Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from