One of the most powerful metaphors in the book is the schoolhouse as a paradise. As a slave, Washington carried the books of one of his young mistresses and, upon seeing the school, felt that "to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise" (3). Later, when he eventually makes it to Hampton, he says that he "felt that [he] had reached the promised land" (19). Education does, in fact, change Washington's life. While he never stops working hard, his education opens the doors to leadership.
Laying the Foundations
Washington was adamant that students should themselves dig the foundations and construct the buildings that would house them at Tuskegee. Although he may not have intended it as such, it is an apt metaphor, for in so doing students were laying the foundations for their own futures. By attending Tuskegee, they learned how to make themselves valuable in their communities, thereby assuring themselves a way to make a living. Washington believed strongly that his race should start at the bottom, learning the fundamentals of agriculture, for instance, before trying to succeed in politics.
Pressure of Success
Washington was particularly invested in Tuskegee’s success, as it was the first large educational institution built and controlled entirely by blacks. He felt people would be surprised if they succeeded, but that if they failed they would "injure the whole race" (55). He uses figurative language to emphasize the pressure he felt: "All this made a burden which pressed down on us, sometimes, it seemed, at the rate of a thousand pounds to the square inch" (55).
"Cast down your bucket where you are" (83).
As part of his famed Atlanta Exposition address, Washington tells the story of a ship lost at sea who, upon seeing a friendly vessel, cries for water. The friendly vessel responds that the ship should cast its bucket where it is. When the captain does so, he finds fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. Likewise, Washington implores his listeners to "cast down [their] bucket[s] where [they] are" (83). For southern blacks, this metaphor directs them to stay in the south and to achieve success in agriculture, mechanics, commerce, domestic service, or some such field. For southern whites, this means to accept their black neighbors who have already proven their loyalty, rather than looking to foreigners to serve their needs. The phrase also implies that people of both races have the capacity to help themselves, using the resources they already possess.
Making Bricks without Straw
Washington several times uses the metaphor of making bricks without straw, referring to something that must be done without the requisite resources. When he arrives at Tuskegee, he uses it to describe the task of trying to build a school without money for land, building, or supplies. Later, when describing Tuskegee's brickmaking endeavor, he writes that he "had always sympathized with the "Children of Israel," in their task of "making bricks without straw," but [theirs] was the task of making bricks with no money and no experience" (57). The phrase comes from Exodus 5 in the Bible, in which Pharaoh, angry at Moses's message from God to let his people go, punishes the Israelites by no longer providing them with the straw needed to meet their daily output of bricks. Washington's choice of metaphor draws a parallel between himself and the great leader of the Israelites, a parallel later made more concrete by a journalist who describes him as a "Negro Moses" (91).
Up From Slavery Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Up From Slavery is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.