Booker T. Washington’s Autobiography
After reading Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery one might wonder why Booker T., a former slave that worked to get an education and then opened his own school, chose this title when he only talks about being in slavery in the first chapter. At first glance, one might also wonder if the title holds any importance to the story since most of the novel describes Washington’s life post-slavery. Looking a little deeper, though, the reader would see that the title fits this story perfectly. It is important to understand that Booker T.’s Up From Slavery is not only a story about physical slavery, but also one about the mental slavery that the African-American people had to overcome after emancipation. Washington demonstrates this in his autobiography by showing how he participated in the building up of his people, his overall goal for writing his autobiography, and even in his reasons for including the first chapter. In many ways Booker T. helped to bring his people “up from slavery,” and he wanted to show that in his title.
Booker T. wanted to take his people from the state of mind of a slave to the state of mind of a person that others would respect in order to bring them up from their backgrounds as the title implies. After slavery, the African-American people still thought of themselves in the same way that they had while they were in slavery: they cared for themselves the same way, they still had the same education, and they were still the same people, just free. Since slavery was all they knew about themselves, it was hard for the African-American people to think that they could be anything else. Booker T. Washington even writes that “So far as I can now recall, the first knowledge that I got of the fact that we were slaves, and that freedom of the slaves was being discussed, was early one morning before day, when I was awakened by my mother kneeling over her children and fervently praying that Lincoln and his armies might be successful, and that one day she and her children might be free” (2). He thought that slavery was just a normal way of life, and the thought of a different way never occurred to him. But, when he was a free adult, he sought to change this way of thinking in his people, and one of the tools he used to accomplish this was his school.
Like other schools, Booker T.’s taught subjects such as reading and arithmetic, but it also taught life lessons, personal care, and other valuable subjects that his people needed to be educated in. He taught his students the importance of using a toothbrush, eating with a plate instead of hands, and many other simple things. Washington was constantly reminding his students that “…people would excuse us for our poverty, for our lack of comforts and conveniences, but that they would not excuse dirt” (84). He taught them why it was important to take baths regularly and to keep themselves clean and presentable. Since they were free now, others would not excuse uncleanliness, and they would not respect someone that was filthy. With knowledge of basic skills, Booker T.’s people were better suited for life as a free people.
Many people of his race were trying to learn higher level subjects such as a foreign language before learning basic subjects and cleanliness. Booker T. Washington talks about one of his encounters with this issue when he writes “In fact, one of the saddest things I saw during my month of travel which I have described was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar” (59). Booker T. had to redirect their attention, teaching them that, while learning a higher-level subject such as French was good, it was more important to first learn the basics. This is simply because if one knows the basics, that will further enable them to learn a higher-level subject. They needed to know the basics so that they could overcome their mental slavery.
If the meaning of the title Up From Slavery is a reflection of the mental slavery Booker T.’s race overcame, then one might start to wonder why he bothered to include the first chapter at all? Simply put, Washington wanted to give his readers that experienced slavery, his target audience, something that they could relate to and to let them know that he understood their troubles and was not simply an outside opinion telling them how to live their lives. He says that his life as a slave was “…not very different from those of thousands of other slaves” (Washington 2). Just like them, he knew little to nothing about himself and even less about his family’s past. He expressed these difficulties when he wrote that “I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth…” (Washington 1) and that “Of my ancestry I know almost nothing” (Washington 1). He experienced the same hardships and physical difficulties his people encountered. Washington said that the cabin that they lived in “was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabin – that is, something that was called a door – but the uncertain hinges by which it hung, and the large cracks in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was too small, made the room a very uncomfortable one” (2). Washington did not include this chapter only to make a relatable autobiography, though. He also included it so that those who had not experienced slavery could understand its importance. Using this chapter as a base, he could build off of the importance of physical slavery, with the importance of mental slavery. Booker T. uses this title to express the overall goal of his autobiography.
He wished to be an example, a teacher, and an inspiration to his people. He wanted to show his people that they could be more than what they were when enslaved and that their past did not define who they were anymore. He taught them life lessons and various jobs so that they could learn and grow. Booker T. taught his students the value of hard work. Many of his people thought that since they were free, they should not have to work hard anymore, especially since that had been what they had done during slavery, but Booker T. Washington wanted to show them that while slavery was unacceptable, hard work was not. He said that he and the other teachers “…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 61). He did not want to discourage his students from farm work because a vast majority of African-Americans were getting jobs in the agricultural industry.
Another way that Booker T. provided his students with a valuable trade along with a valuable life lesson was by having them build school buildings, which taught them carpentry. Washington said that “It was my aim from the first at Tuskegee to not only have the buildings erected by the students themselves, but to have them make their own furniture as far as possible” (83). Booker T. taught his students trades alongside school-book subjects because he knew that “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race” (Washington 75). Looking back, even his students were glad that they had built up their school with their own two hands because it gave them the reward of self-accomplishment that immediate satisfaction would fail to supply. The physical work that Booker T. taught his students only elevated their upward climb towards overcoming their mental slavery.
Booker T. also wanted to be an inspiration for his people by using his own success as an example. Booker T. wrote about his early attempts at learning when he says “…I tried in all the ways I could think of to learn it [a spelling book], – all of course without a teacher, for I could find no one to teach me” (Washington 13). Whether or not this lack of a teacher was due to a lack of availability or a lack of willingness is uncertain, but what is certain is the determination that Booker T. had to read. He used this as an inspiring example to his people that even though their circumstances were against them, it was not an impossible task to overcome their mental slavery.
It is important to understand the true meaning behind why Booker T. Washington entitled his autobiography Up From Slavery because it is meant to reflect the books overall theme and meaning. This is not simply a story about physical slavery. The importance of the story is found in the mental slavery that Booker T. helps his people overcome throughout his autobiography. He used his goal for the autobiography, his purpose for including the first chapter, and his demonstration of how he participated in the upward movement of his people to further establish his meaning of the title and overall theme of his work. He showed them that the past does not define who a person is unless they let it. Once the African-American people were freed, they were still the same people, but now they had a choice: continue to act and be treated like slaves or work as hard as they could to become a greater people. Booker T. was one of the leaders in this movement, and he used his autobiography to reach more people. The title Up From Slavery let everyone who read it know its true meaning, which was how his people came up from their mental slavery and became a better people because of it.