"Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington: a Reading Response

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Introduction

Throughout Booker T. Washington’s biography Up from Slavery, the approach that he takes in searching for unification between races brings the audience closer to the concern of life after emancipation. The endless struggle that Washington faces to pave a way from a plantation to a university shows a key trait that slaves greatly held during this time, determination. Nevertheless, with all the motivation in the world, the system was still considerably bias during reconstruction. As he faces this reality, Washington is never discouraged and trusts that with just a minimal amount of support the black population will be able to function as a parallel community in society. In this essay I'll present my reading response to Washington’s 'Up from Slavery'.

Analysis of 'Up from Slavery' by Booker T. Washington

As a child, Washington would be tasked with the job of bringing corn to the mill where it would be rounded up for additional use. When discussing the tough journey that he took each time on his way to the mill, I feel like a bigger point was attempting to be made. I suspect that Washington is using this bag of corn as a metaphor in describing the black community, and the weight that is inflicted upon them during and after slavery. Washington stated, “The heavy bag of corn would be thrown across the back of the horse, and the corn divided about evenly on each side.” (Washington, 6) This is where I feel like he is making a distinct point that could be associated with a new revolutionary point of view. I propose that the use of the horse is being viewed almost as a symbol for a society, which is where the bag of corn is evenly distributed on each side of the horse. Washington is using this bag of corn to describe humanity and how the black and white communities not only should be equals, however they were created equal. Is this perhaps the location that Dr. Martin Luther King unearthed the famous quote that he is famously known for? Additionally, I examined the corn itself and its distribution throughout the bag. I suspected the corn to possibly portray both black and white individuals. For this gave me the presumption that the bag can be understood as society, in which the black and white cutlure are all being compelled to be amongst one another. As he continued, Washington expressed how the corn would eventually become unbalanced, which would eventually lead to it falling off the horse. This shift in balance, is the perfect description of what occurred during reconstruction. The reason for the unbalanced bag is due to the discrimination that the black community is overloaded with, and the falling of the bag is the result of such separation and weight-bearing, ultimately leading to isolation.

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As a child, Washington was unable to pick up the weight of the corn by himself and would have to wait hours for assistance. Once again, I feel like Washington is trying to portray something bigger than I could have imagined at this time. The weight of the fallen bag of corn has now shifted completely onto the side of the black community. Nevertheless, I feel as though Washington has now shifted himself into a secondary image of the black population. By this I mean that Washington is using this metaphor to explain how the black community is bearing this pressure and have completely fallen to the ground. Nevertheless, they are willing to wait the hours (which can be translated into years), for help to arrive. Yet, what does Washington mean? And who is going to help a young black boy in the middle of nowhere, by himself? He’s deliberately portraying to his audience that the black community is willing to do the labor and pick themselves up, but just the slightest bit of help is needed. Thus, as he states that until a “passer-by came along who would help me out of my trouble,” (Washington, 6) there would be nothing he could do. I can insinuate that this help he is attempting to recruit, may possibly be from the white culture. But is it? During this time frame, it is evident that the helpful tendencies between racial groups weren’t usually voluntary. So I asked myself, is there going to be a white individual willing to help him pick the black community up? Maybe. However, keep in mind Washington is only portraying the help of one individual to get his corn back in its even position. This is the idea that I immediately jumped into for further examination. I couldn’t help but notice that maybe Washington himself, wants to lift the black community back up. Maybe the help is so that he himself can bear the weight of the black community and give them the balance they desire. Washington is showing his audience that with the help of one important individual, he will be able to get the boost he needs to help his black community achieve the self-sufficient society that is envisioned.

The use of metaphors

The use of metaphors throughout Washington’s autobiography has expanded in multiple areas. At first, I struggled with wondering why Washington has used them so abundantly. Then, after a few moments of critical thinking I could realize that it might have been due to his listeners. Though Up from Slavery was geared towards an audience, it was abundantly read by politically conservative northerners. The beauty behind this was that these individuals were normally opposed to slavery. Jackpot, right? Washington just found the perfect group of individuals that would help him pursue the ambitions that he has strived for. Then again, maybe not. However, the question that Washington must have battled was finding a way to get these readers to help the black community without making it so obvious of his intentions. With using this of a sales pitch approach, it softened the tone due to his reservation from openly blaming the white culture and shifting his agenda towards the idea of acceptance. With this tactic, I believe that Washington would retrieve a larger support group from his audience which in return would help him accomplish his essential goal of integration.

What I found impressive in Washington’s bag of corn metaphor, is the perseverance in which he represents. Throughout his autobiography Washington is continuously exposing us to not only his personal will power, but the strength of character that he believes all blacks to have. This is interesting because even as we progress throughout modern culture, civil rights advocates have continuously preached the same ideas that Washington was proposing during the late 1800s. The faith and diligence that he possessed are beyond intriguing, primarily for the fact that there were so few intelligent and outspoken black individuals that could be compared to Washington. In his quest for developing a self-reliant community, his growth from the position of a slave to the educational philosophist that he was, became his backbone. This rise in social status grew into the perfect foundation in proving his message for unification. Washington believed that there is a large capability for change amongst races, however, action on both sides must be taken. Also, I found the tone that Washington wrote with to be very fascinating for the fact that I can’t be certain of his beliefs towards slavery. I struggled with recognizing if he shared the same anguish towards his past as many other blacks did. His soft approach towards expressing his feelings about his former life makes me wonder if he is being completely truthful. I feel like this may be sort of a literary deception to recruit the help of the white society without forcing them to feel remorseful for the earlier history.

Conclusion

While interpreting Washington’s ideas, I couldn’t help but realize the relationship between his concepts and the content that we have discussed throughout the course so far. I recognized the common implication of humility. I also interpreted a good amount of foreshadowing, which was used throughout literature during this era. It is imperative to consider that Washington could have possibly known the course that our society was taking. As I challenged my belief that there is no way an individual could predict the fate of our culture, I understood how wrong I could be. To Washington, unification was inevitable. Therefore, his undemanding and passive tone made sense. Even though he wished to receive the help of the white community, he did not need to rely on it. As this huge wall of condemnation surrounded him, Washington had the perfect wrecking ball to break through it, tenacity and self-discipline.

As I learned about Washington’s inspiration, drive and objective, I became conscious of the association that his ideas have with today’s civil rights endeavors. They say time is the ultimate healer, however, I believe that time heals nothing unless you travel with it. Washington’s picture of an integrated society did travel, and through time, developed into something much more than he could have ever expected. Unification was proven to be made possible by determination, perseverance and through the help that Washington yearned for.

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