Up from Slavery: Theme
Avoidance of bitterness
Washington is keen to stress his perspective of avoiding feeling bitterness towards white people. This is referred to in relation to former slaves and their owners, and also to a lesser degree between the populations of the North and South after the civil war.
Because of his preference for highlighting the bonds between Southern whites and African Americans, and for extolling the virtues of forgiveness, a Christian ethos evidently courses through this work and his life. However, by refusing to engage in an outright condemnation of the white owners this text may at times be accused of empathising too much with the enemy in a bid to appease rather than antagonize the Southern white audience.
Dignity in labor
The Tuskegee Institute was developed with this concept of dignity in labor in mind and this moral runs through the narrative as a central theme. Washington insists that all races should regard labor as an embodiment of dignity and beauty and he critiques the way in which slavery has left people viewing manual work as demeaning.
It is possible that the industrial nature of the Tuskegee school may be seen to perpetuate the idea that manual work is more apt for his African American students rather than white students at more traditionally academic institutions. In fairness, however, he insists that seeing dignity and beauty in labor should be a universal and not restricted to African Americans.
The theme of elevation was a driving force behind his impulse as an educator. In this autobiography, he regards it as a central reason for education and it is based in the practical wish to elevate former slaves from out of the deprivation they were forced to endure. As a former slave, he is seen to have operated from a position of knowledge and empathy.