Up From Slavery

Up From Slavery Study Guide

Up from Slavery is the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, one of the most prominent black leaders of the post-civil War era. Originally published in Outlook magazine in serial form, it was translated into 18 languages and is one of the earliest African American texts never to have gone out of print. A quintessential rags-to-riches story, the book celebrates hard work, self-improvement, and adopting white values. Wishing not to offend white southerners, Washington minimizes his critique of slavery and racial injustice, instead seeking to assuage the guilt of former slaveholders. He counsels blacks to be patient and to avoid agitating for civil rights or social equality, but rather to prove their worth through hard work. Perhaps to better appeal to white readers and potential donors, Washington employed a white ghostwriter, Max Thrasher, who also served as his public relations agent. Advisors who wanted him to be the spokesman for the black race also influenced him.

While many have criticized Washington's accommodationist views, an earlier autobiography, The Story of My Life, tells a slightly different story. In contrast to Up from Slavery, the audience was primarily rural blacks, with distribution limited to a subscription market covering rural parts of the south. There are notable differences between the two texts and what they chose to include or omit. In Story, for instance, Washington recounts an incident in which he witnessed his uncle being whipped with a cowhide. This anecdote was conspicuously absent from Up from Slavery, as it could be construed as an accusation against the southern whites he wished to placate. Story also includes an entire chapter on self-help, in which he describes in detail the first Tuskegee Negro Conference and step-by-step ways in which blacks could change their condition through taking control of their public and private life. Leaving this chapter out of Up from Slavery has more appeal to northern activists who prefer to see blacks as helpless victims in need of outside support.

Story's manuscript, written by black ghostwriter Edgar Webber, was full of errors, and Washington revised the book a year later to improve the style, clarify confusing sections, and add detail. Even so, Story was very popular among black readers and outsold Up from Slavery for several years. In 1901 Nichols claimed to have sold 75,000 copies of Story, while by 1903 Doubleday, Page, & Co. claimed to have sold just 30,000 copies of Up from Slavery. However, it is only the latter autobiography that is well known today.