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 for office, and he felt that black Americans would find much more progress through excelling in labor and vocational professions than in direct political protest or action.
Many black thinkers at the time, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, found this view distasteful, as black Americans had been used for 250 years as degraded human labor, and the proposal to continue as a laboring class seemed a regression rather than a progression. However, others found Washington’s proposition attractive in its simplicity and attainability. Black leaders on the left continually spoke of the high ideals of liberty and true equality, which to some ex-slaves and newly emancipated children seemed to be abstract and unattainable ideals. Washington’s gradual uplift through labor served as a practical goal that most people could envision. Likewise, white Americans widely accepted Washington’s version of racial progress, because it did not challenge the widely held racist assumption that black Americans were designed by God to be a laboring class. While catering to white racism was not Washington’s goal, he did believe that avoiding backlash from white power-structures until black Americans could prove their merit was another advantage of his ideas. So although Washington’s views can be seen as problematic, his belief in gradual racial progress served as a kind of compromise between a white America that as a whole did not support racial uplift and a black America that wished to be recognized as sovereign and free citizens of the United States.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Washington believed that racial progress does not come from political agitation. In his early years in West Virginia, he saw many mine labor strikes ending with miners exhausting their savings in the duration of a strike and being forced to return to work penniless, no better off than before. He thought this was wasteful, because if miners were able to work over time and maintain their savings, they would perhaps be able to retire early or get an education and a less hazardous job. Washington essentially sees political protest simply as a waste of resources and time. Washington also believes that “agitations of questions of social equality” are a waste of time and “the extremest folly.” For him, progress will only be found “as the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.” Many of the primary political goals of African American leaders at the time seemed useless and artificial to him, and he believed that the only way to truly uplift the race was through self-improvement and hard work. To Washington, political agitation or protest was a sign of regression, not the sign of strides towards racial progress.
Washington instead suggests that the full exercise of political rights will be the result of “slow growth, not an overnight, gourd-vine affair.” Washington is stating that racial progress will be gradual, and that patience and striving toward growth over time will be the true development of the race. To Washington, striving to gain full and immediate rights will agitate whites who hold onto racist views of the political and social role of black Americans, as well as disadvantage black Americans because they are not developed or “prepared” enough to have full and equal rights. To him, these rights need to be earned by merit through labor, not by reward from the government or American society.
To achieve true racial uplift, Washington believed black Americans should “cast down your bucket where you are.” This phrase is Washington’s most infamous and is often what he is remembered for, both in its delivery in the “Atlanta Exposition Address” and in his racial ideology in general. At the beginning of the address, Washington tells a parable of a ship lost at sea with its sailors dying of thirst, only to discover that the ship has found its way to the Amazon River, a source of fresh water. When the ship calls out for fresh water from another ship, the other ship replies, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” In Washington’s eyes, this is the true goal of race relations in the United States. He wishes for black Americans to cast down their buckets where they are as carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, sharecroppers, etc., and excel in their professions to build merit through labor.
This ideology is opposed both to the first Great Migration—the migration of newly freed blacks to the North after the Civil War—and to the striving of black Americans to hold positions higher in society, such as lawyers, doctors, or Congressmen. He felt that both of these things crippled black Americans. The Great Migration fractured black communities in the South, and in his eyes African Americans were not prepared socially and mentally to fill high positions in society. Thus he promotes finding contentment in one’s own situation, without searching to elevate political status outside of labor and work. He believes that if black Americans labor together, white Americans will universally acknowledge their work and dissolve racial prejudices that govern their political views.
While Washington’s views on racial progress are optimistic and hopeful, they are often seen as problematic. His perspective mirrored much of the racist rhetoric of the time that suggested that black Americans needed to “stay in their place” as laborers, and that social equality would make them feel like they were better than whites. Many people, upon hearing Washington’s “cast down your bucket” parable, were deeply troubled and felt that Washington was regressive in his racial views. But many others, both black and white, felt that Washington’s views were reasonable in that they provided real and practical goals that black Americans could strive for without agitating white aggression. With the backdrop of the almost constant lynchings in the South, finding peace and racial harmony, even if it meant striving only towards labor, was an attractive concept for many Southerners. Despite pushback, Washington became one of the foremost leaders in race relations and education in the U.S. because of these cautious and conservative views, and his popularity helped to fund his school at Tuskegee and even received attention from President Grover Cleveland. So while some of his proposals are certainly problematic, Washington’s promotion of gradual racial progress at least aimed to provide a solution to soothe the angry, racist sentiments of white Americans while arming black Americans with practical and attainable aims and hope.
Gradual Racial Progress ThemeTracker
Gradual Racial Progress Quotes in Up From Slavery
The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority, Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape.
Without asking as to whether I had any money, the man at the desk firmly refused to even consider the matter of providing me with food or lodging. This was my first experience in finding out what the colour of my skin meant. In some way I managed to keep warm by walking about, and so got through the night. My whole soul was so bent upon reaching Hampton that I did not have time to cherish any bitterness toward the hotel-keeper.
The central government gave them freedom, and the whole Nation had been enriched for more than two centuries by the labour of the Negro. Even as a youth, and later in manhood, I had the feeling that it was cruelly wrong of the central government…to fail to make some provision for the general education of our people in addition to what the states might do, so that the people would be the better prepared for the duties of citizenship.
I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end. Besides, the general political agitation drew the attention of our people away from the more fundamental matters of perfecting themselves in the industries at their doors and in securing property.
My experience has been that the time to test a true gentleman is to observe him when he is in contact with individuals of a race that is less fortunate than his own. This is illustrated in no better way than by observing the conduct of the old-school type of Southern gentleman when he is in contact with his former slaves or their descendants.
I am glad to add, however, that at the present time, the disposition to vote against the white man merely because he is white is largely disappearing, and the race is learning to vote from principle, for what the voter considers to be for the best interests of both races.
My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that the visible, the tangible, that goes a long ways in softening prejudices.
It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter that his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race…The wrong to the Negro is temporary, but to the morals of the white man the injury is permanent.
Now, whenever I hear any one advocating measures that are meant to curtail the development of another, I pity the individual who would do this. I know that the one who makes this mistake does so because of his own lack of opportunity for the highest kind of growth. I pity him because I know that he is trying to stop the progress of the world, and because I now that in time the development and the ceaseless advance of humanity will make him ashamed of his weak and narrow position.
To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”—cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.
Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection, it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial work…
Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life…No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.
The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to use must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.
Say what we will, there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and regard merit in another, regardless of colour or race.