The Danger of Passiveness in Booker T. Washington’s "Up from Slavery"

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1816 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: Oct 26, 2018

Words: 1816|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: Oct 26, 2018

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Booker T. Washington's Perspective on Race Relations
  4. Washington's Attempt to Cast a Positive Light on Slavery
    The Problem of Passivity in Washington's Approach
  5. Conclusion
  6. Works Cited


In the latter part of the 19th century, the United States underwent a profound transformation in its race relations, marked by the aftermath of the Civil War and the promise of Reconstruction. This period held great optimism, with the newly emancipated African Americans gaining rights and opportunities previously denied to them. However, as the 20th century dawned, racial tensions escalated, leading to a significant body of literature addressing the challenges faced by African Americans. One of the prominent voices during this era was Booker T. Washington, whose essay "Up from Slavery" presented a unique perspective on race relations, one that celebrated positivity and advocated patience in the pursuit of justice. This essay explores how Washington's outlook, though well-intentioned, inadvertently hindered the advancement of civil rights for African Americans during a critical period in American history.

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Following the conclusion of the Civil War and the subsequent era of Reconstruction, a series of rights were extended to the newly emancipated Southern slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau, for instance, offered educational opportunities to African Americans, while the 14th and 15th Amendments granted them equal citizenship rights and suffrage (Lemke-Santangelo). This period immediately following the war was undoubtedly one of optimism and promise for the nearly four million individuals freed by the 13th Amendment ("American"). Nevertheless, as the 20th century dawned, tensions concerning the status of African Americans began to intensify. Repeated Supreme Court rulings revealed a reluctance among those in power to acknowledge black citizens as fully equal. Southern states had already devised strategies such as poll taxes and the Grandfather Clause to subvert the 15th Amendment and disenfranchise black voters (Lemke-Santangelo). Thus, the early 20th century became a time of heated racial tensions, spawning a substantial body of literature in response to these challenges.

During this period, many African Americans turned to literature to address the hardships they faced. This literary output often expressed discontent with the pervasive inequality confronting African Americans in the aftermath of slavery and aimed to advocate for improved conditions and civil rights. Despite the adversity and inequality they experienced, one former slave, Booker T. Washington, who had been just a child when slavery ended ("Booker"), offered a perspective on race relations that stood apart from the prevailing negativity of his contemporaries. In his work "Up from Slavery," Washington chronicled his journey from the hardships of plantation life to eventual success, characterized by relentless labor and determination. Despite the trials he endured, Washington's portrayal of his life and the racial issues of his time not only refrained from inciting immediate action but also absolved white Southerners of culpability in the perpetuation of slavery. While Washington's uniquely optimistic outlook on slavery and equal rights is commendable for its hopeful tone, it ultimately hinders the pursuit of justice for African Americans.

Booker T. Washington's Perspective on Race Relations

Washington's essay "Up from Slavery" is notable for its attempt to cast a positive light on the institution of slavery. Although Washington does not endorse slavery outright, he suggests that there may have been some unintended benefits to the enslavement of African Americans. He contends that "the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition… than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe" (Washington 1350). In making such a statement, Washington implies that there might have been, however minimal, a silver lining to the enslavement of African Americans—a perspective that would face vehement opposition in contemporary discourse. Furthermore, Washington describes a sense of connection with his former masters, even expressing sorrow at one of their deaths. While he refrains from openly celebrating slavery, his portrayal is notably more favorable than that of most former slaves. By depicting slavery in anything less than a uniformly negative light, Washington inadvertently diminishes the urgency of the need for justice for African Americans during that period.

Washington's Attempt to Cast a Positive Light on Slavery

Moreover, Washington goes beyond merely presenting a less negative view of slavery; he actively deflects guilt away from white slave owners. In discussing his white father, a plantation owner who presumably sexually assaulted his mother, Washington states, "I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time" (Washington 1345). This statement is striking not only due to Washington's status as a former slave but also because it implies that white plantation owners bear no responsibility for their actions against fellow human beings. By using the term "victim," Washington not only denies guilt but portrays white Southerners as victims themselves, a perspective that, while perhaps noble in his eyes, poses significant problems by absolving white individuals of their complicity in the perpetuation of slavery. Washington's argument, in doing so, complicates the pursuit of justice.

It is essential to clarify that Washington did advocate for addressing the social injustice faced by African Americans. He explicitly expresses his disapproval of slavery as an institution and asserts that finding any African American who supported slavery would be nearly impossible. Washington insists, "I have never seen one who did not want to be free, or one who would return to slavery," and further states that he pities any nation or group of people that becomes ensnared in the trap of slavery (Washington 1350). Clearly, Washington holds a decidedly negative view of slavery and consistently advocates for the upward mobility of African Americans through education. However, Washington's proposed approach to achieving equality is exceedingly passive, to the point of advocating inaction; he encourages his fellow African Americans to patiently await the arrival of justice.

The Problem of Passivity in Washington's Approach

This passive approach reveals much about Washington's beliefs regarding society and human nature. Throughout his essay, Washington exudes a sense of positivity and gratitude toward those around him. For instance, he frequently employs the term "privilege" to describe his experiences with General Armstrong, an individual associated with the Hampton Institute during Washington's time there. He also contends that the Yankee teachers who played a role in the education of African Americans immediately after the Civil War contributed significantly to the nation's history (Washington 1359). Such statements underscore Washington's inherent inclination toward appreciation and gratitude for individuals, regardless of their race. His essay consistently portrays Washington as viewing fellow human beings, irrespective of their racial background, through a markedly positive lens.

While the ability to see and believe in the best of people is commendable in itself, it becomes problematic when applied to the issue of racial oppression. Washington's deep-seated positivity informs his belief in the inherent goodness of individuals and their innate capacity to recognize goodness in others. Not only does he argue that people "lift themselves up in proportion as they help to lift others" (Washington 1362), but he firmly believes that those in positions of power—particularly white individuals—will eventually come to this realization without external pressure. Believing in the innate goodness of individuals is not inherently flawed, but when applied to the issue of racial injustice, it poses a substantial obstacle to the advancement of equality. Washington's faith in people's innate goodness informs his passive approach to combating racism, as demonstrated in his Atlanta Exposition Address, in which he essentially advises African Americans to wait patiently for justice to come to them. He states, "Say what we will, there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and reward the merit in another, regardless of color or race" (Washington 1371).

This statement carries a compelling and persuasive message. However, in making this argument, Washington inadvertently contributes to slowing down progress for people of his own race. His call for patience primarily resonated with white audiences, while even nonviolent African American activists found his viewpoint deeply problematic. Dr. Martin Luther King, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," articulates precisely the opposite stance, asserting that "when you are haunted day and night by the fact that you are a Negro… plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait" (King 97). Despite being directed at white clergymen, King's argument can be applied just as effectively to Washington's perspective. King contends, "This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never'" (King 97). Consequently, according to King's logic, Washington's counsel for African Americans to wait for justice was essentially a request to disregard the immediate need for justice.

Washington's pronounced passivity also faced strong criticism from African American writer W.E.B. Du Bois, who, in "The Souls of Black Folk," accuses Booker T. Washington of contributing to the disenfranchisement and institutional inferiority of black individuals in the United States through his "old attitude of adjustment and submission" and his aspiration to serve as a "compromiser between the South, the North, and the Negro" (Du Bois 1385). These allegations are far from unfounded; Washington's passive approach primarily appealed to white audiences and served to bridge the gap between justice-seeking African Americans and white citizens who were reluctant, at best, to grant civil rights to black individuals. His position as a former slave who had risen through society's ranks inspired many others of his race to follow his example, effectively muffling the collective call for justice.

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Washington's essay as a whole advocates for the submission of African Americans to societal injustices on the premise that, over time, white individuals will come to recognize the inherent worth of their fellow citizens, regardless of race. He also endeavors to absolve white individuals of their guilt, not by merely suggesting they are without fault, but by portraying them as victims—equating their suffering to his own as a slave and proposing the notion that slavery was not the result of individual wrongs but a flawed institution that had imposed itself on the entire nation. In sum, Washington's optimistic yet profoundly unrealistic view of society, coupled with his efforts to present white plantation owners as victims of the institution of slavery, ultimately undermines the plight of African Americans during the early 20th century, providing a justification for white citizens to disregard the pressing need for justice in America.

Works Cited

  1. Washington, B. T. (1901). Up from Slavery. Doubleday, Page & Company.
  2. Lemke-Santangelo, G. (2006). Abolishing the Whiteness of Whiteness: Compton's White Train and The Souls of White Folk. In Left of the Color Line: Race, Radicalism, and Twentieth-Century Literature of the United States (pp. 130-160). University of North Carolina Press.
  3. "American Civil Rights Movement." (n.d.). The History Learning Site.
  4. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. A. C. McClurg & Co.
  5. King, M. L., Jr. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. In Why We Can't Wait (pp. 83-100). Harper & Row.
  6. Noll, M. A. (2002). America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Oxford University Press.
  7. Harris, F. (2008). Something Within: Religion in African American Political Activism. Oxford University Press.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Danger of Passiveness in Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery”. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from
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