Washington begins his autobiography by describing the destitute conditions of his childhood in slavery. He was born and raised on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia around 1858 or 1859. He is not quite sure when he was born, since his father was a slave owner and his mother was a slave, and there were no records kept of his birth. Washington never even knew his father’s name, because he and his mother were sold when he was very young. He grew up living in the cabin that was used as the kitchen for the plantation, which had large cracks in the walls and a dirt floor. The cabin was unbearably hot in the summer from the kitchen stove and terribly cold in the winter from the cracks in the walls.
Washington begins his narrative in slavery not only to account for the chronological progression of his life, but also to show the depths from which he rose. A major purpose of the narrative is to show how hard labor, honesty, and thrift can achieve equality for newly freed black Americans. By detailing the adverse conditions in which he grew up, Washington is trying to show that any person can uplift themselves, no matter how low their social status. Note also that Washington’s father was a white slave owner, showing the tragic prevalence of rape and broken families as part of the institution of slavery.
Washington’s mother was unable to attend to her children for any long period of time because she was the plantation cook, and worked in the kitchen from early in the morning until late at night. Washington, along with his siblings, John and Amanda, would wake up late at night to their mother offering them a chicken stolen from the plantation.
While Washington does not condone his mother’s stealing, he believes that it is simply evidence of what the practice of slavery can do to one’s moral character. He does not blame his mother for her transgression, and he uses this as further evidence of the evils of slavery.
Like his mother with her constant labor, Washington had no time for sports or leisure as a child because he was always expected to be working. Although he was too young to labor in the fields with the other slaves, he was expected to complete physically trying tasks like cleaning the yard, bringing water to slaves in the field, and transporting corn to the mill. When the corn would fall off of the horse, Washington was too small to lift it back up, so he was forced to wait until a passerby could assist him. Often he would wait all day, and he felt helpless and frightened by the prospect of traveling back in the dark.
Once again, Washington demonstrates the hardships of his childhood in slavery. However, it’s particularly notable that he does not reject the labor requirements of his master. Washington sees labor not only as a necessary part of life, but also as a dignifying and noble practice. He only finds it unreasonable that he was required to complete tasks that he was physically unequipped to complete.
Washington had no formal education, and his only interaction with schooling was when he would carry his white mistress’s schoolbooks to school for her. He idolized education as a slave, and felt that studying in school would be the same as getting into paradise.
This passage is Washington’s first mention of education in his narrative, and he suggests that he was enchanted by the idea of education at a young age. This sets the tone for his later quest for education in the mines in West Virginia and at the Hampton Institute.
Washington’s first knowledge of the fact of slavery came when he awoke to his mother praying that Lincoln’s armies would be successful in their military campaigns. Washington marvels at how all of the slaves seemed to be up to date on war gossip and information, when they had no formal education and were illiterate. Slaves would often trade gossip, and slaves in the plantation house or in public areas like the post office would overhear important conversations and relay them orally to other slaves. Washington himself participated in this system. When he became old enough, he began to work in the plantation house as a house slave. There he overheard many conversations about freedom and the Civil War and internalized many of these conversations.
The “first realization of slavery” is a recurring element in many slave narratives and early African American autobiographies. Most people growing up in slavery did not know what “slavery” and “freedom” really meant because they rarely left the plantation or heard news from outside the plantation boundaries. Thus many narratives, spanning from early works such as the Life of Olaudah Equiano in the late 18th century to Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiographical essays in the early 20th century include a passage of “finding out” about slavery or racism as a key part of growing up and coming of age. This passage also highlights Washington’s belief in the thriftiness of slaves despite their deprived social status and lack of education.
The slaves on Washington’s plantation were entirely deprived of material comfort. Often the slaves were fed only as an afterthought, late at night after the owners had already eaten. As the Civil War continued, food was scarce even for white people, but the slaves were not as greatly affected by the shortage because of their general deprivation. Clothing was also scarce for slaves. Washington was forced to wear wooden shoes and a rough and uncomfortable flax shirt, which was the only garment that he wore in his childhood.
Washington continues to describe the material depths of slavery to highlight how his theory of racial uplift and dignity in labor can work for someone starting at the bottom.
Despite the squalor of the slaves on the plantation, Washington states that he harbors no ill feelings toward white people. He claims that some slaves even felt deep bonds with their masters and were fiercely loyal to them. Slaves would medically care for their owners if wounded in the war, nurse their children, and protect their property upon the master’s absence. Washington insists that this is a result of the general earnest and trustworthy nature of slaves.
Part of Washington’s racial ideology is his insistence that black Americans hold no racial animosity towards white Americans, and that black Americans demonstrate virtue even in the depths of slavery or poverty. His concept of America’s meritocracy, or the belief that societal value is placed on those who demonstrate their own goodness through hard work and success regardless of race, is built upon this idea of the general merit and virtue of black Americans.
To demonstrate such trustworthiness, Washington tells a parable of a slave who had a deal with his master in which the slave was allowed to labor for whoever he pleased as long as he paid the master for his body. However, upon Emancipation, the slave still owed approximately $300 to the master. The slave walked from Ohio back to his master’s house in Virginia, and repaid the man in full. But although slaves felt a bond to their masters, Washington claims that they still felt a desire to attain freedom.
In this example, Washington reiterates his point about the general virtue of slaves in spite of the degradation of the institution of slavery. Washington also again emphasizes the potentially strong bonds between black enslaved people and white slave owners.
On the subject of slavery, Washington believes that white and black people benefited equally from the institution. While he does not condone the practice of slavery and sees it as an evil institution, he also sees it as a method for black people to be introduced to civilization. Further, he believes that newly freed slaves in America are better off than any other black people in the world. Citing black missionaries traveling to Africa to win new converts for Christianity, Washington espouses the belief that slavery developed black people into a civilized society. He also suggests that white people were at a disadvantage by requiring black slaves to do all of their trade work for them, because upon Emancipation these slaves became a skilled working class, leaving wealthy white citizens disabled in the new economy.
Much of Washington’s racial ideology denies the lasting negative effects of slavery on black Americans. After Emancipation, many black leaders saw the social, educational, and economic deficits of newly freed slaves, and they placed the blame both on slavery and racist white slave owners. Washington flips this narrative, suggesting that slavery did not necessarily hold black Americans back. In fact, he claims that it actually helped black Americans, introducing them to Christianity and Western civilization, both of which he greatly admired. In this flipped narrative, white Americans were hurt the most by slavery, both in the evidence of their moral decrepitude and their lack of affinity for labor and hard work. There is little to no sociological and economic evidence to support Washington’s claims, but they are a foundation for his ideology of racial uplift.
Washington concludes the chapter by recounting the day of Emancipation at the plantation. There was an aura of freedom, for the slaves knew for months through their “grape-vine telegraph” (the system of spreading news orally) that the Confederates were facing impending defeat and that Emancipation now was no longer a question of “if” but “when.” There was great anticipation among the slaves, especially when they were sent a message to convene at the plantation house the next morning.
This is largely a transitional passage that marks Washington’s first movement upward out of slavery toward freedom and success. He also briefly gives some interesting information about how slaves worked around their lack of freedom and education to still stay informed.
Most slaves did not sleep that night, and in the morning they all gathered around the veranda. A Union soldier was present, and he began to give a speech and read a long paper, something Washington assumes is the Emancipation Proclamation. Washington’s mother explained to the slaves that they had been freed, and all of the slaves rejoiced. Some of the slaves pitied their former owners, as they were mourning the loss of property and possession. The rejoicing began to subside, however, and slaves were then faced with the weight of an uncertain future in freedom.
The hope and joy that Emancipation brought for many slaves came with a heavy burden: the burden of freedom. Washington reiterates the virtue of the slaves, as many of them felt compassion for their masters and did not hold hate or anger towards them. This chapter ends on a dark note, however, for Washington suggests that slaves will face a difficult and uncertain future in Emancipation, because freedom is a wonderful but difficult responsibility. He believes that labor and education are the only things that will lighten the burden of freedom from newly freed slaves.