Up from Slavery: Top ten Quotes

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1. My life had its beginnings in the midst of the most miserable, desolate and discouraging surroundings.


p. 9 Washington encapsulates the dire quality of life he was born into as a slave in the South of the United States. Prior to this, he states he is not sure of his exact date of birth, but thinks of it as 1858 or 1859 and goes on to explain he knows nothing about his father or about his ancestry generally.


2. But I do not find especial fault with him. He was simply another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time.


p. 9 This quotation refers to Washington’s unknown father and his response to this anonymous man and the effects of slavery is typically forgiving and lacking in bitterness.


3. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself.


p. 16 The reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and the immediate freedom of the slaves is described in this reference as being equivalent to turning a youth out of the home into the wider society. The lack of preparedness of the slave is described and the comparison with the child is a telling one.


4.  … but no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.


p. 45 This is one of the few instances in this autobiography where Washington moves away from his pragmatic and often accommodationist perspective to offer an outright criticism of the dominant white ideology that has allowed for slavery, racism and ongoing inequality.


5. These people feared the result of education would be that the Negroes would leave the farms, and that it would be difficult to secure them for domestic service.


p. 53 Washington perceives the fear of local white people who questioned the value of educating African Americans. It could be argued that his understanding of an industrial education feeds into, or was fed by, this type of thinking. Conversely, it might be argued that his desire to educate former slaves in a way that would lead to immediate employment was pragmatic and essential given the period under discussion.


6. The white man who begins to break the law by lynching a Negro soon yields to the temptation to lynch a white man. All this, it seems to me, makes it important that the whole Nation lend a hand in trying to lift the burden of ignorance from the South.


p. 71 Washington’s argument depends on pointing out that the white person will eventually be made a victim of the racist’s behavior, and thus attempts to show the white reader that the hatred in racism will inevitably spill over into white society. He appeals, therefore, to self-concern rather than empathy and this reference may be seen as one more example of his pragmatism.


7. I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him, and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done.


p. 84 This quotation usefully highlights Washington’s strategic thinking in his bid to undermine racism.


8. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.


p. 91 His view of labor, and firm belief in finding dignity and beauty in it, is a tenet of Tuskegee and one that drives his policies as an educator. It is also of note that he refers to all races here.


9. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.


p. 92 This now famous quotation is of interest for the manner in which Washington addresses the separateness of African Americans and uses this to state that ‘we’ are also a part of the nation. Once more, it is possible to see him employ pragmatic or accommodationist politics, depending on one’s point of view of his rhetoric.


10. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.


p. 93 At this point, Washington expresses an element of Protestant caution as he advises African Americans to turn to labor rather than immediate gratification in order to achieve longer term pleasure.

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