First and foremost, Up from Slavery is a book about the power of education to transform lives. From an early age, Washington views school as a paradise, a way to escape ignorance and to become equipped to help others. He sees industrial education as key, as it gives students the skills to make a living and to be of value in their communities. For this reason he chooses to work in education rather than politics, believing he "would be helping in a more substantial way by assisting in the laying of the foundation of the race through a generous education of the hand, head, and heart" (32).
Washington is a strong advocate of self-reliance and believes that individual merit will bring success regardless of one's race. Even as a child, he expresses admiration for these traits, praising his mother for making him a cap for school rather than going into debt to purchase one. At Tuskegee, he insists not only that students learn and practice a trade, but also that they grow their own food, construct their own buildings, and build their own furniture. He condemns wasteful spending and often reiterates the idea that people who make themselves useful will be valued in society, no matter the color of their skin.
One of Washington's most often-repeated messages is that those who are happiest are those who dedicate themselves to helping others. He commends his fellow students at Hampton for educating themselves in order to lift up the people in their communities rather than for their own advancement, and he expresses his admiration for the teachers who have given their careers to teach his race. He shares numerous examples of generosity, from a former slave donating six eggs to wealthy philanthropists giving thousands of dollars, and implies that those who do good are rewarded for their deeds.
The Dignity of Labor
Washington believes strongly that there is dignity in labor. He notes that one of the worst things about slavery was that it "cause[d] labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority" (7), while the most important thing he learned at Hampton was that "it was not a disgrace to labour" (28). He celebrates the fact that the lady principal at Hampton joins him to wash windows and prepare beds, and he is adamant that Tuskegee students do manual labor as part of their education. In this way they can learn to be self-reliant and earn the respect of others who value their work.
Fellowship between the Races
Washington believes the way to solve the race problem is to encourage fellowship between the races. He bears no animosity towards his former enslavers, instead assuring them that both races were victims of the institution of slavery. When he mentions the Ku Klux Klan, he is careful to acknowledge the whites who defended blacks during a scuffle. While he is often the victim of racism before he achieves fame, he tells of such incidents without anger or malice. He often praises the generosity of whites and highlights the way they treat him with kindness and respect.
Washington's life story is an excellent example of the power of perseverance. Faced with numerous barriers, he never gave up trying to get an education as a boy, even going so far as to alter the time displayed on the clock in the salt mines to make it to school on time. He did not give up his dream of getting to Hampton even when he had to sleep under the sidewalk, nor of promoting industrial education when Tuskegee had no money for land, buildings, or materials. He kept trying to make bricks after three failed attempts, and he refused to become discouraged when students complained of the lack of even basic amenities at the school. The great success achieved by both Washington and the Tuskegee Institute is a testament to what can happen when one perseveres even when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Rags to Riches
Washington is adamant that blacks should progress from the foundations up. In his famous Atlanta Exposition address he states: "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top" (83). His own life began with "rags", as did the life of the Tuskegee Institute; it is an apt metaphor that he has his students dig the actual foundations for the buildings at Tuskegee. He often juxtaposes images from either his early life or the early life of the school with those from later on, highlighting the dramatic progress that was made. In this way he highlights his belief that individual merit and hard work can allow others of his race to achieve success, despite the barriers of social and political discrimination that stand in the way.
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.