As evidence of his audience’s reception of his Atlanta Exposition address, Washington includes a full newspaper article written by a reporter for the New York World. The article names Washington as a “Negro Moses” whose address marks a new period of race relations in the South. It describes Washington’s address as “electrifying” in the midst of the anticipation and tension of the mixed audience composed of blacks, Southern whites, and Northern whites. It depicted Washington as a stoic and powerful speaker who captured both his white and his black audience’s attention, and whose noble presence on stage was a large part of his success in the address. Because of such success, Washington decided to take on some public speaking engagements, as long as the purpose of the engagements was to support Tuskegee or his race more generally, and not for personal gain.
Washington tries to prove to readers that his motives are pure in taking more public speaking engagements, and that his success with his Exposition address is simply an opportunity to achieve a greater good for Tuskegee and black Americans in general.
Washington claims that he does not understand why people repeatedly come to see him speak. He is humbled by people’s widespread support of his ideology and educational philosophy. Although Washington spoke somewhat regularly, he says that he still suffers great nervousness that causes him to feel unworthy, and often after a speech he will feel like he forgot to include some key concept or example that would have made the speech much better. However, Washington is able to overcome this nervousness if he can simply connect with his audience. To him, audience connection is an extremely important part of public speaking, and sometimes he even tries to pick out one cynic in the crown simply for the exercise of trying to win him over. There is also a sense in which he approaches making speeches as a craft, a vocation.
Washington’s focus on the importance of community is again highlighted in this passage. To Washington, speaking engagements are less about politics and rhetoric and more about the establishment and fostering of community. For all his modest rhetoric, it’s clear that Washington has a passion and great talent for persuasive public speaking.
Because of the importance of connection with one’s audience, Washington thinks that speaking for the sake of public speaking alone does an injustice to one’s argument. For Washington, the purpose of public speaking is to speak from the heart, and speaking earnestly with investment in a topic is more important than the rules of rhetoric or grammar. Washington believes that fostering a connection with the audience is more meaningful than rhetorical strategies or devices. Washington could be disturbed on the podium, however, when someone would leave the room. To solve this problem, he resolved to make his speech so interesting that no one would want to leave.
Once again, Washington thinks that community—the general community of the location, as well as the immediate community of the speaker and direct audience—is very important in public speaking. Even when Washington is trying to be aesthetically pleasing or interesting with his speeches, this is still in the service of utilitarian purposes.
Washington’s favorite audiences consist of businessmen from major cities like New York or Chicago, because he feels that they are responsive and quick to understand his points. However, he does not enjoy the long dinners that usually are held before these speeches, for he feels that these accentuate his nervousness. Washington also thinks that such meals, often containing as many as fourteen courses, are decadent. He recounts that as a slave boy, he would get a weekly treat of molasses on his plate from his mother that was much more enjoyable and valuable to him than these extravagant meals.
That Washington’s favorite audiences are important businessmen should come as no surprise. Washington felt that those in high positions in society were necessarily virtuous, and so he deeply enjoyed being in their presence.
Washington’s second favorite type of audience consists of Southern people of either race. Washington particularly likes speaking in front of black people, because he feels that their active response to his speech during delivery is encouraging. His third favorite audience is a college audience, and he has spoken at large universities including institutions like Harvard and Yale.
Washington’s preference of Southern and collegiate audiences should also come as no surprise, because of his deep appreciation for local communities.
When Washington spoke in the interest of Tuskegee, he would schedule speeches in as many local organizations and churches as he could, often delivering up to four speeches in one day. After the Atlanta Exposition address, Washington and his wife were paid by the Slater fund to speak to large groups of black people in the cities of ex-slaveholding states. Washington would talk to professional men, ministers, and teachers in the morning, Mrs. Washington would speak to the women in the afternoon, and then Washington would deliver an address to a large audience at night. Washington claims that most of his speeches were largely attended by white citizens as well as black, which Washington sees as a valuable occurrence.
Washington tries to reiterate that his purpose in pursuing public speaking engagements was only to better the Tuskegee Institute. Likewise, he is careful to point out that many of his audiences consisted of ex-slaveholders and Southern whites—thus again demonstrating (what he sees as) their wide acceptance of him.
According to Washington, such speeches in the Southern cities gave him an excellent indication of the status of the race in terms of racial uplift. He would visit churches, homes, and even prisons to get firsthand accounts of race relations in the cities. Washington was hopeful after speaking to these cities, for he felt that there was a lasting sense of good will between the races that would promote unity and progress. Such access to firsthand information also helped him to debunk the racist notion that black women were not virtuous, and he felt confident that such assumptions about black women and black people more generally were absolutely false.
One popular racist idea circulating in the US at the turn of the century was that black women were more inclined to sin and vice than white women. This harmful stereotype partly came from the institution of slavery, in which black women were sexually abused in order to create more slaves or to appease their white masters’ sexual desires. As a result, black women were seen as sinful, hyper-sexualized beings. Washington denies this stereotype and argues for the virtue of black women.
In 1897 Washington received an invitation to speak at the Robert Gould Shaw monument in Boston. Washington was honored, as Shaw was a Civil War legend among black Americans at the time. Washington again recounts the address and memorial through a report in a newspaper, the Boston Transcript. The report claims that Washington’s position as speaker at the memorial was a testament to Massachusetts’ spirit of abolition and good will toward black people, and many people showed up at the memorial to show their support of Shaw’s legendary sacrifice and Washington’s speech. Delivered after speeches by the Governor and some military officers, the report claims that Washington’s oration had a sensational effect on the crowd, often bringing the audience to its feet and inducing the Governor to cry out “Three cheers for Booker T. Washington!”
Robert Gould Shaw was the commander of the first all-black regiment in the Union Army in the Civil War. In the Battle at Fort Wagner, Shaw died valiantly leading his men into battle, and was enshrined in popular memory as a freedom fighter for American ideals and racial equality. Thus Washington was honored to speak at such an event because it represented both racial progress and American patriotism.
Washington also delivered speeches to celebrate the end of the Spanish American War. His most notable address of this kind was in Chicago, upon the invitation of the President of the University of Chicago to speak in the post-war festivities. Washington claims that this was the largest crowd he ever spoke in front of, consisting of 16,000 participants, including President William McKinley. Washington’s speech recounted the military participation of his race, from the sacrifice of Crispus Attucks in the Revolutionary War to the black regiments in Cuba that liberated the island from the Spanish. The speech was well received by the audience in general, as well as by President McKinley.
Washington includes an account of this address both to demonstrate the increasing size of his speaking engagements and to introduce President McKinley into his narrative—a major historical presence who will figure rather heavily later on. Crispus Attucks, a black man who, in the popular American imagination, was the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, was killed in a riot in Boston called “The Boston Massacre.” While casualties were few in this so-called massacre, anti-British propaganda was able to use the killings as an example of British tyranny. By mentioning Attucks and the “liberation” of Cuba, Washington is attempting to connect black Americans with important political and military contributions in American history.
According to Washington, although his speech was a great success among those in the North, the Southern press misinterpreted one portion of the speech. After a great deal of criticism by Southern papers, Washington clarified his comments by appealing to his principle that he would never say anything in the North that he would not say in the South, and that his work for 17 years in the South should be testament to his love and care for the region.
Washington uses this passage to reaffirm that if one’s beliefs are correct, time will expose their truth to even one’s greatest detractors. However, this has not always been the case with his own firmly held convictions. Washington most likely omits the content of his supposedly controversial speech in order to downplay whatever racial content his white Southern audience felt was problematic. Once again, even in his handling of conflict with white Southerners, he is privileging his relationship with white Americans in spite of racial tensions in the country at the time.
In his public speaking career, Washington dreaded one specific type of audience member—one that Washington calls “the crank.” Washington describes this type of character as being dirty and having a long beard, often covered in grease and wearing baggy clothes. Washington claims that these cranks would come to him with unrealistic schemes that were designed to make them rich but had little to no benefit for the greater good of the race. For example, when Washington was speaking on the methods of how to grow corn for a year to support black communities, a crank in the audience claimed that he knew a patent process of how to preserve corn for three to four years. Washington believed that this type of person was foolish because they wasted valuable time in his speaking engagements and rarely had contributions of note.
To Washington, the “crank” violates all the principles of respectability that Washington believes are the true exemplars of merit. The “crank” is dirty, poorly dressed, and self-absorbed. The “crank” indeed serves as a foil to Washington himself, for while Washington portrays himself as respectable and intelligent, he portrays the “crank” as slovenly and unintelligent.
Washington claims that he is only able to balance his speaking with his commitments at Tuskegee through help from those close to him, in conjunction with Tuskegee’s excellent and organized infrastructure. Washington claims that Tuskegee is so well organized that it does not require much direct supervision, which allowed him to spend time fundraising and speaking. Washington largely was able to keep up with the events of the school through a system of reports made for him by his secretary. Through these, Washington was able to know particularities of the school’s operations such as the attendance records of students, the production measurement of Tuskegee’s industries, and what food was being served in the dining room.
The reader gets particular insight into Washington’s leadership style in this passage. Washington was evidently a very hands-on leader who would pay attention to minute details such as individual student attendance and what kind of meals were being served. Washington implies that this attention to detail helps him to run a tightly organized system at Tuskegee, which in turn boosts institutional efficiency.
On the subject of rest or recreation, Washington claims that he does not engage in these activities generally, but finds joy and relaxation in his work. Often he finds purpose in new work, so he will try to close each day by wrapping up whichever business matters that he was working on by the end of the day in order that he may start the next day with a new set of tasks and concerns. Aside from this, Washington occasionally engages in physical activity to keep his body healthy, but he does not engage in sport or other recreational activities. Washington also prepares himself at the beginning of each day for the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of his work, and he readies himself for any bad news so that he does not become too stressed or frustrated with the setbacks or problems of the day.
Washington’s ideology of the dignity of labor is expressed to the extreme in his personal life. Washington rarely engaged in any recreational activities or took vacations, and he found joy and rest in his work. Washington is trying to demonstrate that a life of labor can be both joyous and fulfilling, even if it requires lifelong toil and might be detrimental to one’s health.
Washington has only taken one vacation, which he took when his friends paid for him and Mrs. Washington to spend three months touring Europe. Washington claims that his good health is a result of proper upkeep, regular doctor’s visits, and a good evening of rest.
This vacation is discussed in detail in the next chapter. As usual, Washington emphasizes his own strict adherence to a life of order and labor.
Washington also claims that the only time that he has to read is on trains. He prefers newspapers, and he finds “delight and recreation” in their reading, but he also enjoys reading biographies and other non-fiction works. The only type of literature that he does not like to read is fiction, because he sees it as a waste of time. He prefers to read about events that really happened. His favorite subject for study is Abraham Lincoln, and he claims to have read almost every work concerning Lincoln.
It should not be surprising that Washington dislikes fiction. We already know that he deeply distrusts politicians and professional public speakers, because he feels that these professions are distanced from reality—and what could be more distanced from reality (as Washington sees it) than fiction? This also explains his disdain for “book learning” and those who might emphasize the value of purely artistic or intellectual pursuits, rather than those involving physical labor and economic benefits.
By 1897, Washington was spending as much as six months of every year away from Tuskegee. Although he regretted his absence, Washington claims that his constant traveling for fundraising and speaking events helped him to focus on the important aspects of the work and gave him some time for rest and relaxation that he would not have had were he to stay in Tuskegee year round. However, the times that he felt most rested were when he was with his family in Tuskegee. Washington deeply enjoyed simply spending time with his family after an evening meal.
Aside from his narration about his early life, this is the only part of Washington’s narrative that discusses his family outside of the scope of his work. Before this point, all of his wives and children have been contextualized only by their relation to Tuskegee or Washington’s personal work.
Washington also found some enjoyment and peace in his garden in Tuskegee, and he feels that time spent in nature is both spiritually and physically rejuvenating. Along with gardening, Washington personally cares for some livestock, and he particularly enjoys working with pigs. While he does enjoy these simply pleasures at home, Washington does not enjoy games like football or cards because he never played games in his youth. He sees them simply as frivolity.
Washington also suggests that the only respite or rest that he gets outside of time with his family is in nature. This is in accord with his earlier espousal of the American Transcendentalist belief in the important of self-reliance, because the Transcendentalists also advocated for regular time in nature to gain wisdom and rest. Washington seems to deeply value this strain of philosophical thought.