The New York Times on 15 February 2009 by Shelby Steele, "Pride and Compromise" a book review of "UP FROM HISTORY: The Life of Booker T. Washington" by Robert J. Norrell. Steele writes: To belong to an oppressed group always meant that you could not pursue your self-interest by acting directly on the world. You first had to account for the oppressor who had so much power over you. So you inevitably wore a mask that helped you navigate the oppressor’s bigotries, ignorances and self-absorptions. For the oppressed, the mask was power itself. And the four centuries of oppression we black Americans endured gave us masking as a cultural habit.
The real fights within the black community — our internal culture wars — have been over which face we show white America. The legendary battle of ideas between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois at the dawn of the 20th century was also a battle over masks: should we seem humble and modest or prideful and outraged? This “mask war” was vicious because group masks are mutually exclusive; each nullifies the other. Can’t be humble and outraged at the same time. One mask had to die so that the other might live. So the battle between Washington and Du Bois was winner-take-all. One man emerged the leader of his race; the other became a symbol of Uncle Tomism.
And yet both men had good ideas for black uplift. Washington’s emphasis on self-help was not fundamentally incompatible with Du Bois’s emphasis on protest, and both were necessary. But Washington and his notion of self-help were diminished — especially after the protest-oriented ’60s — to make the face of black protest more singular. Thus a paradox: masking is an inevitable coping mechanism for the oppressed, but it is always oppressive in itself. It sacrifices great ideas and good people for the look of unity.
No black man in American history has been more a victim of this paradox than Washington. And it is hard to think of a historical figure more in need of biographical rescue. Yet Washington is an awkward challenge for the contemporary scholar. He is so thoroughly stigmatized as politically incorrect that rescuing him could seem a political act in itself, and even a balanced book could be dismissed as a polemic. But Robert J. Norrell, in his remarkable new biography, “Up From History,” gets around this problem the old-fashioned way: by scrupulously excavating the facts of his subject’s life and then carefully situating him in his own era.
Norrell, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee, is writing history as well as biography here, and his attention to historical context has the effect of normalizing Washington. We see, for example, that in the post-Reconstruction South of “white nationalism” and lynching, his accommodation of segregation — in return for the latitude to pursue black economic and educational advancement — was really a rather brave and pro-black position. So we are able to view Washington as more Quixote than quisling, a man forever hoping against hope and tirelessly at war with a kind of impossibility. In the cause of his people, he burned himself out to a fine ash — dying in 1915 at 59, from exhaustion, high blood pressure and indifference to his health. He had single-handedly built a black college (Tuskegee Institute), in an Alabama of Ku Klux Klan terrorism, that was bigger than any white university in the state. Yet even today, when there ought to be the repose in black and white America to see him more clearly, the name Booker T. Washington still carries that taint of Uncle Tomism.
This is because he wore the mask of what I have called the “bargainer” — that face by which blacks promise not to protest racism if, in return, their blackness is not held entirely against them, and they are free to pursue at least a part of their self-interest. Norrell’s term for this is “fox,” and he says of the 25-year-old Washington, “He had long since separated the inner Booker, the young man with big ambitions and independent intelligence, from Booker T. Washington, the public person known as a capable mulatto, clearheaded and modest, sensible and polite, a Negro who did not give offense.” Interestingly, more than 100 years later, Barack Obama would write in his first book that, as a teenager, he had realized that people “were relieved” and pleasantly surprised “to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”
Both men were “foxes” who pursued their quests by bargaining with — rather than challenging — white America. Both wore masks that disarmed white anxiety. But Washington is still the archetypal Uncle Tom because whites in his day were so intractable that his bargaining came to look like sycophancy. Today the brilliance with which he achieved the near impossible is forgotten, while the unfair presumption of his racial capitulation is ubiquitous.
“Up From History” will go far in correcting this. I thought I knew something of Washington’s complexity before reading this book. And I had always been fascinated by Dr. Bledsoe in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” a darkly ironic sendup of Washington as a merciless pragmatist. But here we see the real man at his interminable labors: incessantly fund-raising for Tuskegee in the North, mapping out political strategy with liberal white philanthropists in Boston and New York, fighting with Northern black elites one day and with white nationalist Southerners the next, and then, back at Tuskegee, riding out on horseback in the early morning to micromanage the college’s agricultural operations. And we see a man at odds with his own admonition against protesting racial injustice. He publicly protested “against Jim Crow on railroads, lynching, disfranchisement, disparities in education funding, segregated housing legislation and discrimination by labor unions” — an agenda all but identical to the one taken up by Du Bois, the N.A.A.C.P. and others who had reviled Washington as being too timid.
But finally, he was a man who lived inside a crucible. As Norrell puts it: “Having conditions forced on him, with the threat of destruction clearly the cost of resistance, does not constitute a fair definition of accommodation. It is coercion.” Well said. And Washington understood that his people also dwelled inside a crucible. Norrell’s rich portrait makes clear that Washington never stopped seeing himself as the leader of his people. How to help them live in such circumstances? His informing idea was that responsibility — hard work, education, the moral life — brought a degree of freedom and independence even in oppression. The pursuit of excellence would bring blacks an economic currency in the larger world, and thus, ultimately, respect and equality. With more fearlessness than any ’60s black nationalist, he saw black Americans as a free-standing people and asked them to compete openly with all others.
The challenge for oppressed people is always to sustain good faith. Their world is so flagrantly unfair that it laughs at them. Washington’s genius was to keep his people in good faith even in the depths of persecution. The South of his era was not terribly far from “final solution” thinking. So what we today snidely call “accommodationism” made space for the poorest black sharecropper to keep believing in the power of his will. He could go every year to the Tuskegee Negro Conference and learn about crop rotation, like any other man in charge of his own fate.
Du Bois’s protest strategy for black advancement made this sharecropper’s fate contingent on white moral evolution. It implied that his will would be largely a futility until whites changed. And Du Bois may have been right. But Washington understood that the loss of good faith was the worst of all things, and when black America was at risk of this, he was the shepherd.
“Up From History” gives back to America one of its greatest heroes. [written by Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, writes often about race. [New York Times]