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 uplift not only black Americans but also people of all races.
Specifically, Washington believes that laboring for oneself or one’s community can help to grant both “independence” and “self-reliance” to black Americans. He is deeply critical of those who pursue an education to avoid or circumvent physical labor. Washington feels that engaging in hard labor is the truest form of education, and that book learning and scholastic pursuits are useless unless paired with some sort of practical purpose. By connecting labor with the ideals of self-reliance and independence, Washington is attempting to appeal both to those looking to promote racial uplift—the development or assimilation of black people into American society—and to those dedicated to the ideals of American exceptionalism and individuality. He also connects these ideals to the philosophies of American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who argued that individuality and independence are quintessential parts of the American social tradition. Washington is connecting with a wide audience here, claiming that both blacks and whites in the country can find the value in labor if it is connected to these American ideals.
Further, Washington suggests that labor is not just valuable for “utility” but also for “beauty and dignity.” Many African-Americans were skeptical of Washington’s theory of racial uplift, which advocated for black people to stay where they are and attempt to excel at labor and vocations that were thought of as undignified and reserved for the lower classes, such as carpentry, blacksmithing, farming, etc. However, he suggests that the dignity and poise that are traditionally attributed to the arts and upper class professions can be acquired through labor as well as through these “higher” pursuits. In the famous “Atlanta Exposition Address,” which he includes towards the end of his narrative, Washington tells the mixed-race audience that there is “as much dignity in tilling a field as writing a poem.” He claims that there ought to be as much value and beauty placed in physical labor as there is in writing a poem, practicing law, holding a government position, etc. Many black Americans saw labor as degrading, because as slaves they were inhumanly forced to labor without any pay, but Washington sees labor as a way by which to restore dignity to black people from the degrading practices of slavery.
Washington goes further than just suggesting that labor is valuable in its power to restore beauty and dignity to black Americans, and he suggests that labor is valuable to all people, regardless of race. Washington wishes that all men would attempt “to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living,” and he pities anyone, no matter their race, “who has never experienced the joy and satisfaction…of an effort to assist in making some one else more useful and more happy.” In other words, in Washington’s view, the ideal American, and truly the ideal human, will find fulfillment in the practice of labor and service for others. This idea of universal joy in labor fits Washington’s ethic of racial uplift, for he believes that gradual uplift may be acquired by devotedly laboring in one’s place and working one’s way up to a higher place in what he believes is America’s “meritocracy.” More broadly, Washington believes that, if all Americans labored with the same mindset that he is advocating, the entire country would experience a form of improvement and enlightenment.
For Washington, labor is not simply a sector of economic development, a form of racial uplift, or a necessary burden of life. Rather, labor is the ideal mode of personal improvement, one that endows upon the laborer political, social, and economic independence as well as joy, beauty, and self-worth. While many critics opposed Washington’s ideas of labor as problematic for African Americans—because his ideas suggested that race and political equality are secondary concerns to personal development and individual freedom—Washington persisted and applied these ideals to his life, his speeches, and his educational leadership. To Washington, physical labor was the most effective means by which to not just achieve racial equality, but also to elevate humanity.
The Dignity of Labor ThemeTracker
The Dignity of Labor 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.
At Hampton I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labour, but learned to love labour, not alone for its financial value, but for labour’s own sake and for the independence and self-reliance which the ability to do something which the world wants done brings. At that institution I got my first taste what it meant to live a life of unselfishness, my first knowledge of the fact that the happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy.
In fact, one of the saddest things I saw during the month of travel which I have described was a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar.
We wanted to teach the students how to bathe, how to care for their teeth and clothing. We wanted to teach them what to eat, and how to eat it properly and how to care for their rooms. Aside from this, we wanted to give them such a practical knowledge of some one industry together with the spirit of industry, thrift, and economy, that they would be sure of knowing how to make a living after they had left us. We wanted to teach them to study actual things instead of mere books alone.
While I was making this Christmas visit, I met an old coloured man who was one of the numerous local preachers, who tried to convince me, from the experience Adam had in the Garden of Eden, that God had cursed all labour, and that, therefore, it was a sin for any man to work. For that reason this man sought to do as little work as possible. He seemed at that time to be supremely happy, because he was living, as he expressed it, through one week that was free from sin.
From the very beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings. My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility to labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake. My plan was not to teach them to work in the old way, but to show them how to make the forces of nature—air, water, steam, electricity, horse-power—assist them in their labour.
Some people may say that it was Tuskegee’s good luck that brought to us this gift of fifty thousand dollars. No, it was not luck. It was hard work. Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.
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.
There is a physical and mental and spiritual enjoyment that comes from a consciousness of being the absolute master of one’s work, in all its details, that is very satisfactory and inspiring.
I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life—that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living.