Analysis of The Difference in Ideologies Between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois

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About this sample


Words: 2793 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

Words: 2793|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020


Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Ideological Divide
  3. Booker T. Washington's Vision
    W. E. B. Du Bois' Counterpoint
  4. Literary Concepts in African American Literature
  5. The Mastery of Form and Booker T. Washington
    The Deformation of Mastery and W. E. B. Du Bois
  6. Conclusion


In the realm of African American literature, two seminal works that have undeniably left an indelible mark are "Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington and "The Souls of Black Folk" by W. E. B. Du Bois. These literary classics proffer distinct ideological solutions to the challenges facing African Americans in the 20th century. Washington advocates for the upliftment of African Americans through diligent labor and practical vocational skills education, even at the expense of immediate civil rights. Conversely, Du Bois contends that while education is crucial, true racial advancement can only be achieved by concurrently pursuing civil rights. Houston A. Baker Jr., a scholar of African American literature, asserts that these works not only shaped the political philosophies of subsequent generations but also embody two fundamental concepts within African American literature: the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery. This paper aims to compare and contrast the divergent ideologies of these two influential authors and elucidate how their works epitomize the aforementioned literary concepts.

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The Ideological Divide

The post-Civil War era, known as the Reconstruction era, failed to secure the rights of African Americans as citizens, despite their emancipation. By the late 19th century, rampant lynchings, segregation laws, and voter suppression rendered the rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments effectively null and void. African American intellectuals of the time grappled with the imperative challenge of finding a solution to coexist within a society that refused to acknowledge their equality.

Two prominent intellectuals emerged with their distinctive visions for resolving this quandary: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Shaped by their own life experiences, these men developed their unique approaches to ameliorate the African American condition.

Booker T. Washington's Vision

Booker T. Washington, born into slavery on a Virginia farm, faced an upbringing shrouded in mystery. The precise details of his birth and parentage remain obscured, but he was raised by his mother, Jane, an enslaved African American woman. The identity of his father remains elusive, although it is widely acknowledged that he was a white man.

The upbringing and early life of Booker T. Washington profoundly influenced his ideological stance. In his autobiographical work, "Up From Slavery," he recounts, "From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labor." Growing up on a plantation and later seeking employment at the age of nine, Washington imbibed the values of labor and education. His childhood labor experiences included toiling in salt factories, coal mines, and working as a houseboy for a white family. With Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, these endeavors transitioned into genuine employment rather than enslavement. Education also became a pivotal aspect of Washington's life. He began attending night classes at a school open to African Americans, eventually gaining admission to day classes for a brief period. Washington's daily routine involved arduous labor in the early hours, followed by two more hours of work immediately after the school's afternoon closure.

Subsequently, Washington pursued a formal education at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. His time at Hampton reinforced the significance of education in his life. However, it would be a mischaracterization to suggest that his appreciation for learning was a newfound development. In his own words, "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." Evidently, Washington's lifelong yearning for education stemmed from his early aspiration to read.

However, one could posit that his tenure at Hampton University not only deepened his appreciation for formal education but also instilled in him a profound understanding of the value of hard work. Washington's dedication to his education led him to work as a janitor to cover his tuition expenses. During his time at Hampton, he caught the attention of the institution's founder, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who became his mentor and held him in high regard. Under Armstrong's guidance, Washington imbibed the principles of self-control, moral integrity, and the importance of practical vocational training. Upon graduating from Hampton, Washington briefly taught at an elementary school in his hometown before General Armstrong invited him back to Hampton in 1880. Subsequently, Washington was nominated by his mentor to head a new educational institution in Tuskegee, Alabama.

This institution, known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, had a primary mission to train African Americans in teaching methods, agricultural skills, and provide them with the necessary education for various trades. Washington fervently advocated for industrial education, viewing it as a pivotal means of advancing the African American community. He believed that African Americans should prioritize self-improvement by acquiring practical skills and establishing their own businesses. Washington's conviction was that through diligent work and economic progress, African Americans could demonstrate their value to the United States' economy and, consequently, alter the perception of white Americans.

However, Washington's philosophy came with a condition – the suspension of immediate demands for civil rights. He believed that African Americans should temporarily set aside such demands to focus on education and economic empowerment. In 1895, he articulated these views in a speech delivered to a racially mixed audience at the Cotton States and International Exhibition in Atlanta. His stance garnered support from two groups: African Americans who saw practicality in his approach and white Americans content with postponing discussions on sociopolitical equality. Nevertheless, Washington's perspective drew substantial criticism, with one of his most notable critics being W. E. B. Du Bois.

W. E. B. Du Bois' Counterpoint

Born William Edward Burghardt Du Bois on February 23, 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a predominantly white city. In 1885, he enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he encountered Jim Crow laws and gained a profound understanding of American racism. After a brief teaching stint at a college in Ohio, he assumed the role of director for a major study on the social conditions of African Americans. His research led him to the conclusion that discrimination by the white population was the primary barrier preventing African Americans from accessing well-paying jobs. Du Bois abhorred such discrimination, but what he found even more troubling was African Americans who advocated for such prejudicial behavior, effectively aiding white individuals in denying African Americans the means to progress as a community. He viewed Booker T. Washington as one such advocate.

In his work "The Souls of Black Folk," Du Bois dedicated a chapter titled "Of Mr. Washington and Others" to scrutinize Washington's perspective. He critiqued Washington's viewpoint by characterizing it as regressive, stating, "Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission." Du Bois elucidated Washington's recommendations: African Americans should, in some way, submit to the prevailing system by relinquishing their potential political influence, any claims to civil rights, and access to higher education. Instead, Washington proposed that African Americans should focus on self-improvement through industrial education and seek reconciliation with the Southern states. Du Bois acknowledged that this perspective had been predominant for over fifteen years but lamented the limited progress it had achieved.

As a consequence of this particular worldview, African Americans have found themselves further marginalized. Legally, they have been relegated to a societal status that inherently portrays them as inferior. Moreover, access to educational institutions that could uplift them has been restricted. While Du Bois acknowledges that these consequences may not directly stem from Washington's ideology, he contends that Washington's viewpoints have significantly contributed to the worsening social situation faced by African Americans. He argues that Washington's perspective has expedited the emergence of these problems. Du Bois does not limit his assessment to the outcomes but also scrutinizes Washington's viewpoints on their intrinsic merit, which he perceives as riddled with paradoxes.

Washington advocates for African Americans to become entrepreneurs and property owners, a goal that Du Bois finds unattainable because African Americans cannot realistically engage in or advance within such endeavors without the right to suffrage. Du Bois finds it particularly paradoxical that Washington emphasizes thrift and self-respect while simultaneously endorsing silent submission to civic inferiority, a stance that erodes the manhood of any race over time.

Du Bois questions how one can advocate for self-respect while simultaneously encouraging actions that perpetuate unfavorable notions about one's place in the world, effectively advising them to remain in a position that has historically discouraged self-respect. He identifies a third paradox in Washington's prioritization of industrial training over higher education institutions. Du Bois argues that without the trained teachers from higher education institutions, the very places of learning Washington values would cease to exist. In conclusion, Du Bois expresses a complex sentiment – while he recognizes and appreciates Washington's accomplishments and their positive impact on African Americans, he also criticizes him for potentially acting as an apologist for racial injustice and for his failure to acknowledge the importance of pursuing all the civil rights owed to African Americans as citizens.

Nevertheless, Du Bois' assessment of Washington's perspective has several issues. One of these issues concerns Du Bois' interpretation of Washington's views on scholarly pursuits versus industrial education. Washington's emphasis on industrial education did not imply that he believed African Americans were incapable of mastering scholarly subjects or that they should completely forgo access to them. He simply prioritized practical and essential subjects. Furthermore, Washington did not intend for African Americans to accept their inferiority; rather, he sought to provide them with the skills and knowledge required for survival and prosperity.

Regarding Washington's alleged apologetics for racial injustice, Du Bois fails to consider the historical context in which Washington's educational program was developed. This program aimed to address the needs of an economically deprived African American population that lacked essential skills during the Reconstruction era. Many African Americans were trapped in perpetual debt due to sharecropping, particularly in the Alabama Black Belt, where the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute was located. Industrial education was designed to equip these individuals with the tools necessary to function in society and engage in trade. Washington's mission was to teach students self-sufficiency and problem-solving skills, not merely how to get by in life.

Additionally, Washington believed that African Americans harbored unrealistic aspirations to start at the top, despite lacking the skills to justify such desires. He recognized that pursuing such goals would breed resentment among the white population and advocated for a more pragmatic approach. In the realm of African American literature, Houston A. Baker Jr., a scholar at Vanderbilt University, focuses on two essential concepts: the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery.

Literary Concepts in African American Literature

The Mastery of Form and Booker T. Washington

The concept of mastering a literary form, known as the "mastery of form," is when an artist seeks recognition by working within the boundaries of an established literary tradition. In his book "Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance," Houston A. Baker Jr. identifies Booker T. Washington's work as fitting into such a tradition, specifically the tradition of minstrelsy. During the early 19th century, minstrelsy was a form of entertainment that portrayed African Americans, often performed by both white and black actors, as cheerful, dancing, and musically talented characters. This entertainment genre played a significant role in shaping the perceptions of African Americans within American society, reinforcing the racist stereotype that they were uneducated, always cheerful, and musically gifted. Baker, in this context, is more interested in the profound cultural impact of minstrelsy than the actual performances themselves.

To elucidate this concept of mastering a form, Baker employs the analogy of the praying mantis. He draws upon the work of zoologist H.B. Cott to illustrate the significance of this analogy, stating, "The praying mantis is an insect whose 'allaesthetic' characteristics allow it to master the form of the green stalk so completely that predators, whether at a distance or close at hand, cannot discern its edibility." Here, the mastery of form is linked to the idea of adopting a cryptic mask, similar to the one African Americans have had to employ, much like the praying mantis, to survive. According to Baker, Washington, in "Up From Slavery," also adopts a kind of mask to achieve a particular purpose. Baker argues that Washington is acutely aware of how to use this strategic approach to attain liberation by manipulating this mask for revolutionary reasons. This becomes especially apparent in Washington's 1895 speech.

The Deformation of Mastery and W. E. B. Du Bois

In contrast to the mastery of form, the concept of the "deformation of mastery" refers to an artist's decision to diverge from established literary traditions rather than conforming to them. Baker cites W. E. B. Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folk" as a prominent example of this concept. According to Baker, this literary work serves as Du Bois' way of advocating for a societal revolution, which he vividly portrays by delving into the decades of African American suffering and challenges.

Unlike artists who master a literary form to establish themselves, Du Bois chooses a confrontational approach that challenges existing norms and questions prevailing racial disparities. This is akin to a gorilla rising on its hind legs, pounding its chest, and engaging in what's known as a "phaneric display" when confronting an intruder in its natural habitat. Du Bois boldly proclaims his departure from established literary traditions through "The Souls of Black Folk," pushing for a fundamental shift in how society treats African Americans and advocating for their rightful place in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality.


In conclusion, the works of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, "Up from Slavery" and "The Souls of Black Folk" respectively, represent two distinct and influential ideologies in the realm of African American literature and social thought. Washington, born into slavery and molded by his early experiences, advocated for industrial education and economic self-improvement as a means for African Americans to achieve equality. His philosophy, characterized by the mastery of form, aimed to work within established boundaries to gain acceptance and uplift the African American community.

On the other hand, Du Bois, a scholar who faced racism firsthand, criticized Washington's approach as regressive and advocated for the deformation of mastery. In "The Souls of Black Folk," he challenged societal norms, questioned racial disparities, and called for immediate civil rights and social justice. Du Bois argued that Washington's philosophy not only contributed to the worsening situation of African Americans but also undermined their self-respect and perpetuated racial injustice.

While these two ideologies represented opposing viewpoints in the struggle for African American advancement, it is essential to recognize the historical context and complexities of their arguments. Washington's emphasis on practical skills and economic progress aimed to address the pressing needs of a disenfranchised African American population during the Reconstruction era. In contrast, Du Bois' call for civil rights and social change arose from a deep sense of urgency and the belief that African Americans should not compromise on their rights as citizens.

In the realm of African American literature, Houston A. Baker Jr.'s concepts of the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery shed light on how these authors navigated the literary tradition. Washington strategically employed the mastery of form, adopting a mask to attain liberation, while Du Bois chose the deformation of mastery, challenging established norms to advocate for social revolution.

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In the end, both Washington and Du Bois made significant contributions to the discourse on African American progress, and their ideas continue to resonate in contemporary discussions of race, civil rights, and social justice. While their approaches differed, they both sought to address the profound challenges faced by African Americans in a post-Civil War America and left lasting legacies that continue to shape our understanding of African American literature and the ongoing struggle for equality.


  1. Baker, Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  2. Blatty, David. “W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.”, A&E Networks Television, 13 Apr. 2016, (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.
  3. “Booker T. Washington.”, A&E Networks Television, 3 Apr. 2019,
  4. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Houston A. Baker, Jr.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 18 Mar. 2019,
  5. Costly, Andrew. “Three Visions for African Americans.” Constitutional Rights Foundation,
  6. Du Bois, W. E. B. Souls of Black Folk: the Original Classic Edition. Emereo Pty Limited, 2012. “Mastery of Form / Deformation of Mastery.” Powered by College of Charleston Blogs,
  7. Porter, Horace. “REREADING THE GREAT BOOKS OF HARLEM.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Jan. 1988,
  8. Stocker, Maureen S. Educational Theory of Booker T. Washington. Accessed April 26, 2019.
  9. Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. First Avenue Editions, a Division of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., 2019.
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Analysis of the Difference in Ideologies Between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from
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