It speaks to the general degradation of our American educational system that I could in 8th grade American History class scribble next to “Booker T Washington” “Prominent Black leader of early 20th century” and receive full credit. To be fair, this was about the bottom barrel of it all — for this particular class, I purposefully turned in the worst review of an autobiography of Dwight D Eisenhower, one that I believe should have been graded below a blank sheet of paper, that I could and — lo and behold — received an A.
But why do I remeber something as mundane as the answer to a middle school test question? I perhaps don’t, but remember vaguely the type of test answers that were permissable. I couldn’t quite accept the incompletness of such identifyers, and in this case the subtle racism of the acceptance of such a response. I should have, at the very least, been required to write in “established Tukegee Institute”, and in an even slightly better educational setting probably further been required to explain what, precisely, the Tukegee Institute was and is — never mind the historical and political context.
So it is that I didn’t really get any notion of the controversial nature of Booker T Washington as “The Great Accomodator” until college. WEB Du Bois is assigned reading, and there Du Bois is — tearing Booker T a new one. Sitting alongside Du Bois in the Norton Anthology is, indeed, a few selections of Booker T Washington. They were not assigned reading, though they probably should have been — if just to explain Du Bois’s problem. It is understandable why Booker T Washington was not assigned, and if you venture into David Howowitz’s thesis of the entrenched left-wing indoctrinating system of the University Professor for a second — spitting on Booker T Washington’s inspiring capitalist message here, Booker T Washington’s “Pull yourself up by the boot-straps” message invited “Whitey” to just keep pushing “Blackey”‘s face back right on down to their bootstraps.
Nay. I can create a charitable and sympathetic portrait of Booker T Washington. To help create a decent life for the dispossessed in highly compromised circumstances is a noble enough feat, and you cannot accomplish it without being so compromised. If he didn’t exist, someone else would have had to stand in his place. Further, the call to “Agitate, Agitate, Agitate” from Fredrick Douglas is easy enough to chime in for, but understand if you are in the South and you do such a thing as a black man — you’ll be dead before sunlight.
In present day America, I cannot hear the regularly scheduled speeches of Bill Cosby against the problems with “thug culture” of urban black youth without thinking, in the back of my mind, Booker T Washington. Supposing for a minute that he’s largely correct, and after wiping my mind clean of the image of him shouting for “Theo!”, he is largely correct, and is saying much that Chris Rock gave in his famous comedy monolouge. I hear the celebrations on conservative talk radio and such after any Bill Cosby pronouncement, and I just kind of wince. We have been absolved of our sins!!
Thus it is that I never really think “Uncle Tom”, though as someone more white than thou I don’t really have to intrinsically deal with such an issue. Uncle Tom is just a cartoonish character in a bad, though historically important, polemical fiction. Booker T Washington is at least a complicated and multi-fissured person you can draw from.