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Within the literary canon of African American literature, two of the most influential works of that canon would undoubtedly have to be Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, and The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois. Within these two works, both authors put forth their own ideological solutions to the problems which are faced by African Americans in the 20th century. One arguing for uplifting African Americans through hard work and education within regards to certain practical work skills at the expense of obtaining civil rights, the other arguing that while it is important to get an education, only true racial uplift can be gained by also pursuing civil rights for African Americans. According to Houston A. Baker Jr. who specializes in African American literature, not only would these literary works become so influential as to define the political philosophies of generations to come, but they also represent two very important concepts within his own personal view of African American literature. These two concepts are the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery. The objective of this paper is to compare and contrast the two differing ideologies of these two significant authors as well as to demonstrate how their work acts as the ideal representations of the aforementioned concepts.
Though they had been freed, the Reconstruction era after the civil war failed to secure the rights of African Americans as citizens. By the late 19th century lynchings, segregation laws, and restrictions on their ability to vote practically made the rights guaranteed to them by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments after the war meaningless. During the post reconstruction years in the United States, the primary concern amongst the intellectuals of the African American community were to come up with a solution as to how they could come to live within a society that still refused to recognize them as equals.
Two intellectuals emerged with their own ideas as to how to solve this conundrum. These intellectuals, known well within the pages of American history, are Booker T Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Learning from their own life experiences, both men developed their own methods as to how they wanted to improve upon the plight of the African American. Booker T. Washington was born as a slave on a farm in western Virginia. The exact month, date and year of his birth are unknown as a result of slavery, however the year 1856 is what one will find on his headstone. The rest of his ancestry also remains quite a mystery. Together with his older brother and younger sister, his mother, Jane, an African American woman who was herself enslaved, raised him. The exact identity of his father is unknown, though it is well understood that he was a white man.
It is accurate to say that much of the Booker T. Washington’s ideology was influenced by his upbringing. In his book Up From Slavery he writes, “From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labor”. Through his earliest years from being born on a slave plantation, to seeking employment at the age of nine, Washington learned the value of two things, labor and education. As a young boy Washington was sent to work in salt factories and coal mines, while at the same time working as a houseboy for a white family. Due to Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the emancipation proclamation this would prove to be somewhat actual employment as opposed to slave labor. As far as education was concerned Washington began taking night classes at a school which was open to African Americans. He would eventually be allowed to participate in the day classes for a few months. From then on young Booker’s schedule would be comprised of him getting up early in the morning to work until nine, and return for at least two more hours of work straight away after the school was closed in the afternoon.
So after he was done working in the salt and coal, Washington officially began and would continue his education at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. Upon entering Hampton, Washington learned to value the importance of receiving an education. Though perhaps such is not an accurate statement as it seems he always had an appreciation for learning. He writes, “I determined, when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers”. It is to be understood that his desire for education sparked from his aspiration to read.
However one could argue that his time at Hampton only made him come to know the true value of receiving an official education. In addition to this, he also began to further understand and learn the value of hard work. Washington would work as a janitor in order to pay for his tuition. During his time at Hampton he would soon find himself being taken under the wing of the institute’s founder, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who came to view him as his favorite pupil. Under Armstrong’s tutelage, Washington learned the value of maintaining self-control, upholding moral standards, and seeking practical training in the business of trade. After graduating from Hampton, Washington taught at an elementary school in his home town for a few years. General Armstrong would eventually ask him to return to Hampton in the year 1880. In time Washington’s mentor would soon nominate him to become the head of a new school in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama.
This school would come to be known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. The primary purpose of this institute would be to train African Americans in the methods of teaching, farming, and it would give them the education needed to become skilled workers. Washington would particularly come to advocate for the notion of industrial education. He saw it as a means of aiding in the advancement of his people. Washington believed that African Americans needed to focus primarily on educating themselves, specifically by learning how to engage in useful trades, and by investing in their own businesses. He claimed that through their demonstration of hard work, and economic progress, African Americans would be able to prove how they were of value to the United Sates’ economy. This in turn would hopefully change how they were to be perceived in the eyes of white people.
By gaining financial independence and the ability to demonstrate themselves as productive citizens, what would ultimately occur is that African Americans would achieve full equality. It was understood that there was to be a condition to this philosophy. In order for African Americans to focus on these priorities, any demands for civil rights needed to be put aside for the time being. In 1895, Washington would express these views of his in a speech he gave to a mixed-race audience at the Cotton State and International Exhibition, in the state of Atlanta. He would garner support from two groups. The first was comprised of African Americans who trusted in his approach’s realistic judgment, whereas the second was comprised of white Americans who were contented with prolonging any serious discussion regarding the sociopolitical equality for African Americans until some other time. For all this support, Washington’s view would also garner much disapproval from a great many critics, one of them being none other than W. E. B. Du Bois. Born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a city that was predominantly white. In 1885, he attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there that he came into contact with the Jim Crow laws, and for the first time began to truly understand racism in America. Du Bois would eventually come to teach at a college in Ohio for a brief time. Afterwards he became the director of a major study on the social conditions of African Americans.
After completing his research, he came to the conclusion that the very thing that was keeping African Americans from acquiring well-paying jobs was purely discrimination from the White population of the United States. He certainly despised such discrimination, but what one can imagine was worse than a white person engaged in prejudice, was a black person who encouraged such discriminatory behavior, effectively helping white people deny African Americans the means necessary to advance as a people. This is particularly what he views Booker T Washington is doing. Within the book The Souls of Black Folk there is a chapter in which Du Bois particularly looks into Washington’s perspective. Within this chapter known as “Of Mr. Washington and Others” Du Bois criticizes his point of view. He makes his criticism known by first recognizing Washington’s view as somewhat backward. He writes, “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission”. To further explain his point Du Bois provides an overview of what it is exactly that Washington is calling for. In order for African Americans to survive, what Washington advises them to do is in some way to become submissive towards the system they currently live in. He advises they do so by effectively surrendering three things. First their potential for political power, second any supposed claims they have to civil rights, and third their access to higher education. Instead Washington feels the efforts of the Negro should best be put towards teaching themselves how to accumulate wealth through industrial education, and achieving southern reconciliation. Du Bois recognizes this point of view as having been the dominant way of thinking for over fifteen years. But unfortunately while this view may have been the dominant way, what has come of it is nothing to be desired.
As a result of this way of thinking, African Americans have only been further disenfranchised. Legally they have been further relegated to a status in society which only presents them as something inferior. Also any aid they would receive from institutions dedicated to their higher education has been withdrawn. Though Du Bois acknowledges that these things are not the direct result of Washington’s ideology, he can’t help but state that his point of view has had quite a hand in exacerbating the social situation regarding the place of African Americans in society which only sped up the creation of such problems. Choosing to not only judge Washington’s view based on what is to be perceived as its results, Du Bois also criticizes his view point on its own merits, which he views as nothing more than a series of paradoxes. While Washington wants to make African Americans business men and property owners, Du bois finds this is impossible for African Americans cannot possibly be expected to engage in such occupations, or at the very least advance within such occupations, if they did not have the right of suffrage. Du bois finds it particularly paradoxical that Washington, “Insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap of manhood of any race in the long run”.
Du bois wonders how man can come to advise one have self-respect, yet at the same time tell one to engage in something that only may work to reinforce undesirable notions of what one’s place is in the world, in effect only telling them to stay in the same place they’ve been for years, a place that did not exactly encourage such respect. As the third and final paradoxical way of thinking, Du Bois asserts how Washington seems to place industrial training above institutions of higher learning. Du Bois finds this to be paradoxical because from his perspective the places of learning that Washington cherishes so much would be useless and wouldn’t remain open for a single day if it weren’t for the teachers who are trained at such institutions of higher learning who staff them. By the end of the chapter Du Bois strangely enough asserts that while one should in some way rejoice in Washington’s success, and what he has done for African Americans, one cannot help but criticize him for what one can perceive a Washington acting as somewhat of an apologist for racial injustice, and for his inability to recognize the importance of seeking all the civil rights that African Americans are owed as citizens. There are quite a few problems with Du Bois’ assessment of Washington’s perspective. One of them being his perception as to Washington’s view regarding scholarly pursuits versus industrial education. Washington’s assertion as to the significance of industrial education did not mean he felt that being able to fully master scholarly subjects was out of the realm of possibilities for African-Americans, nor should they all completely surrender their access to it. He simply believed that there were more practical or important subjects to be taught. Another being that despite what Du Bois might think, It was never Washington’s intention that African Americans should accept their inferiority, but rather that they should be instructed on how to do things out of necessity.
Also as far Washington becoming an apologist for racial injustice by trying to appeal to white, as well as black audiences supposedly arguing in some form to maintain racial separation. What Du Bois further fails to understand, or doesn’t really take into account about Washington’s program of education is that the program was in many ways a product of its time in that it was designed to deal with a more deprived group of African-American people who seemed to require instruction on the most fundamental of subjects. Many African-Americans had neither the skills nor the expertise necessary to make progress in the economic domain during the Reconstruction era. A large portion of the population had sunk into a period of never ending debt as a result of sharecropping in Alabama’s Black Belt, where the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was situated. Industrial education was seen as a means which provided an opportunity for these people to obtain the tools needed to function in society by learning how to engage in trade. From Washington’s perspective it would have been pointless to create a training program that would not seek to improve the societal status of African-American population as a whole.
Thus whatever program was to be created, it had to effectively be able to educate the poorest of the population. Washington was trying to show them how to be self-sufficient by teaching his students how to work effectively and in doing so prosper in American society. Furthermore it was more than just being able to get by in life by that self-sufficiency. It gave them a sense comprehension. Meaning that not only did he make it his mission to teach his students how to do things, but also how to solve whatever problems they may face later on in life. Additionally Washington believed that African Americans had an unreasonable desire to start at the top. This was principally ridiculous as not only did they lack sufficient skills to justify this desire, but there would be increasing animosity amongst the white population in pushing for such a thing as a result. Houston A. Baker Jr is a scholar at Vanderbilt University who specializes in African American literature. In his approach to African American literature, two concepts emerge. These are the notions of the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery.
The concept of the mastery of form is when an artist, in order to make themselves known, rights their work within the metaphorical confines of a literary tradition. In the book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance Houston A. Baker Jr. finds that Washington’s work falls into such a tradition, specifically the tradition of minstrelsy. In the early 19th century, minstrelsy was a form of entertainment that depicted African Americans, sometimes played by both white and black people, as a happy, dancing, music performing characters. These acts would come to play an important role in shaping how African Americans were to be viewed within American society. This form of entertainment reinforced the racist stereotype that they were uneducated, ever-happy, and musical. In this particular sense Baker is interested more with the profound cultural significance of Minstrelsy, however, and not so much with the act. To give an explanation as to how he views the concept of mastery of form, Baker uses the analogy of a praying mantis.
To further illustrate this point, he uses the work of a zoologist by the name of H.B Cott to explain the significance of such an analogy. He writes, “The praying mantis is an insect whose ‘allaesthetic’ characteristics allow it to master the form of the green stalk so completely that predators-at a distance, and even close at hand-cannot distinguish its edibility”. In this case the mastery of form is associated with a kind of cryptic mask akin to the kind of mask African Americans have had to use, much like the praying mantis, to survive. As for how this applies to Up From Slavery, much like the mantis, Washington also uses a kind of mask of sorts in order to achieve some kind of purpose, according to Baker. To him Washington is perfectly aware of how to use the strategy of gaining liberation by manipulating the mask for revolutionary reasons. This is particularly brought to light within the speech Washington gave in 1895. In contrast to the mastery of form, the concept of the deformation of mastery is when an artist decides to write something which effectively goes against a literary tradition, rather than working within it. Baker particularly views The Souls of Black Folk as an excellent example of this concept. To him this work of literature is Du Bois’ way of demonstrating the need for a revolution. This is demonstrated as the book goes over the decades of the sufferings of African Americans. Much like the gorilla that rises on its hind legs when confronted with an intruder in its natural habitat, beating its chest while hooting, engaging in what is known as a phaneric display, Du Bois boldly advertises his
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