Up From Slavery


Booker T. Washington

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Themes and Colors
The Dignity of Labor Theme Icon
Vocational Education Theme Icon
Meritocracy Theme Icon
Gradual Racial Progress Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Up From Slavery, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

The Dignity of Labor

Perhaps the most developed theme in Up From Slavery is that of finding dignity in labor. Washington believes that slavery has given black Americans a distorted perception of labor—that it is a degrading rather than an uplifting and honorable practice. Through his education program at Tuskegee Institute, speeches, and testaments from his own life, Washington wishes to reverse the perception of labor as dishonorable, since he believes that finding dignity in labor will help to…

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Vocational Education

Booker T. Washington believed deeply in the importance of education in the development of young people. He suggests that African Americans were “crippled” when they were freed by the federal government but had no means by which to educate themselves. He attributes this lack of education to the failures of the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. After the war, many black people made quick strides into the political and economic spheres, but during Reconstruction…

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Washington wished to promote a society that measured the worth of people not by the color of their skin or their class but by their measurable contributions to society. This ideal meritocracy, or society in which merit is the defining attribute of worth, gives equal opportunity to all citizens if they apply themselves to their labor.

This theme is a key aspect of Washington’s perspective on race relations; he felt that if African Americans demonstrated…

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Gradual Racial Progress

The most controversial theme of Up From Slavery is Washington’s repeated promotion of the idea of gradual racial progress. Washington’s views on elevating African Americans from the depths of slavery suggested that swift progress that is enforced by the government could actually be harmful to African Americans, because it pushes them to become independent citizens without being prepared to act as such. He discouraged any sort of political action outside of voting and running…

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