Up from Slavery
Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up from Slavery recounts his remarkable life as an African American during the Civil War. The autobiography starts from the time he was a slave in Virginia to his lifelong journey of striving to get an education and sharing that knowledge with other young African Americans. In his book, Washington only talks about his childhood as a slave in one chapter, while the remainder of the story describes his life after slavery. Why then does he title his autobiography Up from Slavery even though slavery is hardly ever mentioned?
Many readers could argue the significance of the title of Washington’s autobiography and how it helps readers understand the works underlying theme, however, upon closer examination of the work as a whole, it is evident that Washington wanted to inspire people to see how an education can transform someone’s life and help them be of value in their community. An education was one of the first things Booker T. Washington desired after he and his family were freed from their plantation following the Civil War. One of his earliest forms of education was in a schoolhouse in Kanawha Valley, Virginia.
Upon going to the schoolhouse for the first time, Washington discovered a difficulty that seemed to separate him from the rest of his classmates. During that time most slaves only had one name, while others had two or three parts to their names. Washington quickly thought of a solution that is stated in the quote, “An idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him ‘Booker Washington’, as if I had been called by that name all my life” (Washington 17). This was one of the first events in his life that truly brought him “up from slavery”. He began to push away his past of slavery by creating his full name so that he would be equal with his classmates and accomplish getting an equal education.
Throughout his life, Washington was always endeavoring to get a better education, obtain more knowledge, and educate others. Education was one of many important life skills to Washington, and therefore he opened up the Tuskegee Institute. The Tuskegee Institute was a school for African Americans that was devoted to training teachers, but also taught them general hygiene and practical knowledge of industries so that they could make a living. This is stated in the quote, “We wanted to teach the students how to bathe; how to care for their teeth and clothing…we wanted to give them such a practical knowledge of some one industry…that they would be sure of knowing how to make a living after they had left us” (Washington 61).
Washington had a limited education as slave, but also had limited resources to care for himself. By giving this type of education and resources to other African Americans as well as freed slaves, it taught the students to meet the general expectations of a white man to present themselves as equals, as well as to help them make a living for themselves. In 1895, Booker T. Washington gave his famous speech, the Atlantic Exposition Speech, in front of a predominantly white audience.
In his speech, he explained the importance that African Americans have economic security and an industrial education. He also explained how African Americans and whites could work together to improve the society. This is stated when he says, “In our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.
In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (Washington 107). In this quote Washington explains how when African Americans have an industrial education, the two races can work together to make progress within the community. His speech also describes how African Americans and whites are separated because of slavery, but they can always come together as equals to improve the industry.
In today’s society, many people take education for granted and take advantage of it. Through his autobiography, Booker T. Washington can teach readers the importance of education and how it can impact someone’s life. Washington also teaches us how education affects the livelihood of a person and can help make a better life for themselves. The title Up from Slavery is a significant symbol of how Booker T. Washington used education and his own experiences as a young boy to an adult to rise up from slavery and make a difference in the community.