Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915)

    Contributing Editor:
    William L. Andrews

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students typically ask questions like these: Why was Washington such an accommodationist? Why did he seem so ready to accept the values of the dominant culture and political system? Why was he always so restrained and unwilling to say anything to upset the white supremacy status quo? I point out Washington's training at Hampton Institute, where he learned very early what white people wanted and how little could be accomplished without pleasing them. Also note that Washington is trying to build a source of black power in the South and cannot do so unless he makes his work seem apolitical (when it isn't).

    Consider also these questions: What is the best way for a minority group to advance their own cause when faced with either outright hostility or fear and mistrust? Is Washington's tactic the most effective? What are its costs and advantages?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    What is Washington's relationship to Douglass, the leader whose mantle he adopted? What kind of realism is Washington advocating and how does it accord with literary realism? How does Washington fit into the tradition of the Franklinesque self-made man?

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    What sort of slave narrative is Washington writing, in contrast to Douglass's? Compare the first two chapters of both men's autobiographies to see where they resemble each other and differ. Generally Washington poses as a man of facts, not feelings, but does he sometimes betray strong feelings?

    Original Audience

    Stress the willingness of turn-of-the-century readers to believe a black man who is full of optimism about progress. How might such a message be received today--with how much suspicion?

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Compare to Douglass and Chesnutt, especially in their depiction of slavery. Why would Washington play down the horrors of slavery?


    I recommend the chapter entitled "Lost in a Cause" in Robert Stepto's From Behind the Veil. Urbana: Illinois University Press, 1979.