Today, I want to discuss Up From Slavery, the compelling autobiography by Booker T. Washington.
Who Was Booker T. Washington? What Is Up From Slavery?
“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” – Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington was an educator, orator, writer, advisor, and accomplished individual. He was borne into slavery and spent his early childhood under the system. Fortunately, slavery was ended during his early years. However, Booker T. had to carve a life for himself and others in the post-slavery, racist United States.
Booker T. Washington lived from 1856 – November 14, 1915. During his lifetime, he opened the Tuskegee Institute. The Tuskegee Institute provided education, employment opportunities, and a future for many African Americans. Booker T. also advised presidents, spoke candidly to white Americans, and fought against lynching and other brutish, racist practices.
Today, I want to talk about Booker T. Washington, his autobiography Up From Slavery, and the lessons I took from the book. Similar to Frederick Douglass, I hope to express my gratitude for Booker T. as well as encourage you to read his book.
1. Dignity Is Achieved Through Labor
“Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.” – Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington started his life forcibly working for other people. He was a slave, and the fruits of his labor were not his own. However, when he broke free of his chains, he did not condemn work. Furthermore, he focused on working smarter and ensuring every penny earned was his to keep.
Booker T. Washington learned many trades throughout his life, including writing, brickmaking, construction, and public speaking. Furthermore, he built the Tuskegee Institution on brilliant planning and physical labor. Booker T. Washington worked hard to create the better future he wanted for himself and others.
Additionally, Booker T. did not lead from the ivory towers. He was not a man to command others, then sit back as they worked. Therefore, he got his hands dirty and showed his students the value of physical labor. His love and appreciation of labor separated him from his critics, such as W.E.B. Du Bois.
Dignity Through Labor
There is dignity through labor. Why? Labor is the process of producing a valuable good or service to offer to others. Your production of value requires skill, discipline, and focus; none of these are easy to come by. Therefore, to be productive and professional, you need to grow as an individual.
Furthermore, your creation of valuable labor benefits those around you. It is hard to hate or disrespect a productive, humble individual. For example, Booker T. recounts how even the racist white Southerns he met could not help but respect him. They may have disliked his skin color, but they were forced to recognize his labor and work ethic.
Power Through Labor
“Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.” – Booker T. Washington
Additionally, there is power in labor. You can take your human hands, and through hard work, team effort, and planning, you can create a skyscraper, for example. How is such an act not dignifying and empowering? Through labor and skill growth, you become useful to others and yourself.
Booker T.’s skill growth allowed him to build Tuskegee without the intervention of the racist whites who were initially against his idea. He didn’t have to depend on others because he had the skills to make his vision a reality. Further, he didn’t need to wait for the laws to catch up to his desire to educate others. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
Can the uneducated voter use his abilities to get out of his college debt? Of course not. He has no skills, no character, and no humility. He has to use the government to bail him out because he is dependent on others for his success. While he waits for the government to act, he will complain and lie and further degrade into a weak-willed, parasitic nobody.
However, if he learns a skill, serves his fellow man, and follows virtue, he won’t have to wait for a bailout. He’ll repay his debt, develop a backbone, and become the author of his future. Just like Booker T. Washington.
2. Politics will never give you self-respect or a stable future
“I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” – Booker T. Washington
Throughout my life, I’ve heard the need for political action and change. Of course, political action does not make an individual or a populace virtuous. Just because you vote for a welfare program does not mean you are a generous person. Similarly, voting for war does not make you a courageous individual.
Therefore, Booker T. Washington was against the top-down, political change advocated by his critics. He believed individuals were strengthened through personal development and economic stability. Once these things are accomplished, a populace may focus on political power.
Ultimately, the problem with politics is how short-sighted it is. Politics always serve immediate needs but doesn’t care for long-term dangers. For example, listen to any public debate. Notice how no one mentions the national debt and its ungodly effect on the financial future of our children and grandchildren. Why don’t we talk about our economic future? Because we need jobs NOW, welfare checks for the poor NOW, free healthcare for everyone NOW, more war for the nation-state NOW, and so on. At no point does anyone ask, what will happen to our economy, virtues, and environment in ten years?
Politics Will Never Build Your Character
Furthermore, politics does not build character. Voting for welfare doesn’t make you compassionate for the poor. Why? Because you don’t make a conscious effort to spend your money on others. You have the government forcibly take a little of your money and a lot of your neighbor’s money to pay for your short-term relief efforts. You advocate for government involvement, despite you and everyone knowing how corrupt politicians are.
Trillions of dollars have not improved the condition of the marginalized or disenfranchised. Only personal improvement and effort can help an individual turn their life around. You don’t feed a man. You teach him how to work, so his food is his own, earned by his sweat and blood.
Booker T. and his allies did not vote their way to self-respect. They earned respect and built the behaviors and attitudes needed to excel.
3. Failure Will Teach You How To Grow
Failure will teach you how to grow. Booker T. Washington faced countless failures throughout his life, and he kept returning to his work. For example, Booker T. Washington and his students tried to create bricks. The process failed at least three times before they made a profit. However, their persistence reaped just rewards. Eventually, Booker T. and his students opened a successful brickmaking business.
Most people avoid failure. They seek comfort, which protects them from nothing. However, failure strengthens the mind and enables you to push forward when inconveniences are unlucky enough to cross your path.
Remember, failure is constant throughout life. You can fail to act, or you can push through your mistakes and accomplish your goals.
4. Self-reliance leads to stable communities and healthy individuals
“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” – Booker T. Washington
As always, I’ve never understood how you can have a beautiful forest with dead trees. Similarly, I don’t know how you can produce a stable society with neurotic, scared, small-thinking individuals. If individuals in our society lack skills, clear goals, a meaningful purpose, and a sense of value, how will we thrive as a culture? The collectivists, of course, have their easy answers: raise taxes, pass more laws, blame “privileged” collectives, yada yada.
However, as individualists, I hope we are smarter than such trite. Booker T. understood that every man, although not an island, had to be built and strengthen. Competency, virtue, and accomplishment strengthen individuals and the communities those individuals are part of.
Rise Up From Slavery By Becoming A Stronger Individual
“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength: one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.” – Booker T. Washington
You must remember that collectivists are not honest. To clarify, when individualists advocate for self-reliance, we do not advocate becoming an island. We are arguing people should be as capable as possible. Citizens should be physically fit, competent, emotionally stable, and financially responsible. As Booker T. points out in his autobiography, how does any community lose if most of the members are financially stable? How does a country lose if more citizens are physically healthy? How do you lose if your neighbors are patient, reasonable, and respectful? Conclusively, all we lose in the pursuit of virtue is comfort.
Meantime, those who tell you that change can be brought from up high are lying to you. These manipulators want you under their control and would prefer you weak, distracted, and dependent. Instead, learn more skills, assist virtuous people, and push past your weaknesses so you can face the difficulties of life on your terms. Stop waiting for your free handouts in the breadline.
5. Education can be found anywhere and everywhere
When opening the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington included farming, fieldwork, carpentry, and other physical activities into the curriculum. Many of the students complained. They wanted to be scientists, poets, writers, and preachers. However, Booker T. saw the value in learning a trade and respecting the use of manual labor.
Physical labor builds character and gives a person access to useful skills. For example, when I went to college, I felt empty and wasteful. I read Shakespeare, studied history, learned about environmental science, and wrote about identity, but I knew nothing of value. Meanwhile, I could not fix a toilet, grow food, build a website, lift heavy boxes, or remain patient during trying times. In conclusion, I was weak in virtue, strength, and spirit.
Physical Labor Will Improve Your Character And Expand You Mind
“No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” – Booker T. Washington
On the other hand, when I left college, I worked in kitchens, on farms, and at farmers’ markets. The hours were long, the fields were hot, and the customers often rude and ungrateful. During this time I learned how to think, remain patient, and focused. Therefore, after a few years of hard labor, I was humbled. Because of these benefits and more, I still return to manual labor from time to time.
However, education in the classroom is important. Many of Booker T. Washington’s students went on to be lawyers, doctors, writers, and preachers. In addition, many of them become successful farmers, brickmakers, handymen, and housekeepers. As a result, the variety of skills taught at Tuskegee ensured students were competent and humble.
Education happens everywhere. Never let anyone convince you staying in a classroom all day is the height of accomplishment.
The Wisdom of Up From Slavery
Booker T. Washington, similar to Frederick Douglass, understood the only path to freedom was through individual growth and achievement. They never excused their racist, broken society. Booker T. frequently fought against lynching laws and was critical of racist white Southerns in public and private. However, both men understood change has to start internally. Personal stability gives an individual power that no one can vote or take away. Instead of focusing strictly on politics, Booker T. understood progress came from economic security and personal responsibility.
Today, people are, as always, begging for the government solution to complex problems. Unsurprisingly, more people are neurotic, unfocused, and scared. They do not understand themselves or their futures. They are powerless in the face of their own personal weaknesses. This weakness is the result of political obsession: people can hold pointless Twitter debates but can’t balance a checkbook.
However, you do not have to give in to fear. You are capable of making improvements to your life. You can escape your obsession with the political elite and the masses.
Where do you start? Read this blog. Set clear goals for yourself. Start with small habits. But most importantly, remember no matter how often you stumble, fall, or fail, you can achieve greatness. Never let anyone take your destiny from you.
Follow in the path of Booker T. Washington. Become an individual.
- Of the five items listed here, which lesson do you struggle with the most? For example, do you struggle with accepting the value of education outside of the classroom?
- Do you feel grateful for your life? Do you reflect on how much the world has improved in terms of social relations? What are you doing to ensure things improve instead of worsen?
- Do you have a favorite job? Why do you like it?
- Has there ever been a physical job you’ve wanted to do?
- What are you doing to build a stable life? What are you doing to become more useful to your fellow man?
- Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
- Up from Slavery by David Boaz – A look at the imperfect history of American freedom
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
- The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois – Dubois lived a privileged life compared to Booker T. However, his criticisms and insights are always worth reading and investigating.
Please remember that it’s important to do the actionables. You’re not on this earth to simply read but to do. To become an individual, you must act more than you consume.
*Image credit to Unsplash.