Up from Slavery: Essay Questions

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1. Describe Washington’s childhood and background as related in this autobiography.

In Up From Slavery, Washington gives a first-hand account of his childhood as a slave and his descriptions of the family’s living conditions and lack of education exemplify the poverty he and other slaves had to endure. The detail he gives concerning his mother’s work as plantation cook and the basic structure of their cabin, for example, teach and remind us that slavery depended on the full exploitation of African-American slaves.


Further to this, before the Emancipation Proclamation he only ever saw the inside of a schoolroom when he was carrying the books of one of his mistresses. He explains how he and his fellow slaves were illiterate, and he demonstrates that it is only through his determination and the support of others that he managed to achieve a level of education that meant he could go on to educate others.


2. How did Washington aim to ‘elevate’ those who had been disadvantaged?

His work as an educator was driven by the desire to elevate his fellow African-Americans from the lives they led as slaves. Elevation in these terms means both a physical and spiritual lifting up and the ethos of finding dignity and beauty in labor, which he learned at the Hampton Institute, was continued at Tuskegee. He believed that slavery had demeaned manual work to the point that it was reviled by white and African-American people alike. With Tuskegee, he aimed to teach the enrolled African-American students that industrial training would equip them for immediate employment and would instil pride in them for their achievements.


3. Consider the role of religion in this work.

While he outlines the terrible conditions that he and his family and other slaves endured, he is also at pains to reiterate that slavery had ill-effects on the white population too. It is in keeping with his Christian influenced philosophy that he avoids being bitter about former slave owners and is also forgiving of the sins of others.


For later exponents of civil rights, such politics may be seen as accommodationist and too willing to be understanding of these owners. In this light, Washington’s autobiography may be read as at least being extremely careful in the way it avoids offending the dominant white ruling groups.


4. To what extent does Washington challenge the dominant white population?

Given that the narrative is used to discuss the need for rapprochement between white and African-American peoples, this work unsurprisingly offers little negative criticism of the dominant white culture. There is a preference instead to remind the readers that slavery was an institution and, therefore, avoids focusing on specific people or practices.


While attempting to explore the possibilities of a united United States, it could be said that Washington is at least naive in his optimistic treatment of the dominant culture. It should be remembered that this criticism of his naivety is made possible with the benefit of hindsight, but it would be remiss not to point out that his claim for the virtual disappearance of the Ku Klux Klan (in Chapter Four) was both wishful thinking and wrong.


5. Analyze the political position offered by Washington.

His political position was shaped demonstrably by the view that merit will always be recognized whether it is the merit of a white or African-American person that is under scrutiny. This tenet is admirable for its optimism and for the belief system that depends on the altruism on others. By expressing such opinions, he is also repeating once again how he feels no bitterness towards the white population.


Although his political position was colored by a desire for fairness, he was not Marxist or socialist in his undertakings and this is made evident when he critiques the power of the unions. His left-wing stance was limited then by his desire to be accepted and accommodated by the ruling groups.


In his defence, his politics may be interpreted as necessarily pragmatic. From this perspective, the acceptance and economic funding of the ruling group is vital for the elevation of African-Americans.

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