Summary – Chapter One, ‘A Slave Among Slaves’
This autobiography begins with the sentence, ‘I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia’. Washington expands and informs us that he is not sure of the ‘exact place or exact date’ of his birth, but thinks it was 1858 or 1859.
His earliest memories are of the plantation and slave quarters, which is where the slaves had their cabins. He describes these surroundings as ‘the most miserable, desolate and discouraging’ possible but adds that this is not because his owners were ‘especially cruel’.
He was born in a typical log cabin, which was about 14 by 16 feet square and lived there with his mother, brother and sister ‘till after the Civil War, when we were all declared free’.
He knows almost nothing of his ancestry, but used to hear whispered conversations ‘among the colored people’ of the tortures suffered by slaves ‘in the middle passage of the slave ship while being conveyed from Africa to America’. He thinks this will have included his ancestors on his mother’s side but he has not been able to trace back further than her. He knows even less about his father, and does not even know his name, but thinks he was a white man who lived on a nearby plantation. His father never provided for him, but Washington says he does not find ‘especial fault with him’ and sees him instead as ‘another unfortunate victim of the institution which the Nation unhappily had engrafted upon it at that time’.
The narrative returns to his home life, and to a description of how the cabin they lived in was also used as the kitchen for the plantation and his mother was the cook. It had only openings, rather than glass windows, and these let in the light and cold. There was a door, but this was cracked and too small. The floor was just the naked earth and there was a hole in the middle of the room to store potatoes. There was no cooking stove, so his mother had to cook on an open fire.
He does not remember sleeping in a bed until after they were declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation. Before then, he and his brother, sister and motehr slept on a bundle of filthy rags laid on the floor. He does not remember playing either, only working, and had no schooling as a slave. He did visit a schoolhouse, but this was when he carried the books of one of his mistresses. These glimpses inside the school made him think of entering it as akin to entering paradise.
Washington recalls how the slaves knew of ‘the great National questions’ through the ‘grape-vine telegraph’. There were without books or newspapers but were aware of wider events such as when Lincoln was a candidate for the presidency. Information would come from the man who was sent to the post office three miles away. On his return, he would stop and tell them what he had heard. When Washington worked at the ‘big house’ fanning flies from the food on the table, he would also listen to the talk of war and freedom which was circulating then and so learn of events further afield.
He shifts to discuss how in the case of the slaves where he lived and for others who were treated with anything like decency there was not bitter feeling towards the white population who were involved in fighting a war that would keep ‘the Negro’ in slavery. He remembers when one of the masters was killed and two were injured, the sorrow was great in the slave quarters as well as the ‘big house’. He also states that the male slave who was chosen to sleep there when the white men were away saw it as an honor.
This point is expanded as he refers to many instances of when ‘Negroes’ carried on caring for their former masters and mistresses who were poor and dependant after the war. He also tells of a former slave who made a contract with his owner to buy his freedom, and even though he did not have to fulfil this agreement after the war, he still did so.
Washington states that he feels no bitterness to any one person for slavery and argues again that it was an institution that for years was protected by ‘the general government’. He furthers his point and claims that the ancestors of slaves – ‘ten million Negroes’ – ‘are in a stronger and more hopeful condition materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe’. He explains that this does not justify slavery, but shows how ‘Providence so often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose’.
Since he has been old enough to think, he has thought the following: ‘Notwithstanding the cruel wrongs inflicted upon us, the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did.’
He argues that the ‘whole machinery of slavery’ was constructed to cause labor to be regarded as ‘a badge of degradation, of inferiority’ and as something ‘both races’ ‘sought to escape’. He uses the case of the ‘old master’ and how his many children never learned a trade as a case in point. Such work was left to the slaves.
As the end of the war approached, he describes how the slaves sang more boldly about freedom and for the first time threw off their masks. They had sung of freedom before, but previously said this was about the next world. At the end of the war, they were all asked to gather at the ‘big house’ and a stranger (who he presumes was a United States’ officer) read what he thinks was the Emancipation Proclamation.
After the reading, the slaves were told they were free. There were scenes of rejoicing but no bitterness. By the time they returned to their cabins, though, the sense of responsibility increased: ‘It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself.’ They only had a few hours to solve their problems of ‘home, a living, the rearing of children, education, citizenship, and the establishment and support of churches’. Some of the slaves were also 70 or 80 years old and gradually the older ones went to the ‘big house’ ‘to have whispered conversations’ with their former owners about their future.
Analysis – Chapter One, ‘A Slave Among Slaves’
This first chapter is detailed in its descriptions of the hardships of slavery, but at the same time is extremely careful to explain that Washington and other former slaves who were treated with comparative decency had no bitterness towards their former masters. It is perhaps difficult if not astounding to read of his deprivations as a child slave and to then read that he wants no recriminations for this treatment.
His outlook may be interpreted as forgiving within the tenets of Christianity, in that he both turns the other cheek in this narrative and refuses to continue bearing a grudge. This forgiveness may also be interpreted as a practical means of moving into the future rather than being trapped in the past of hate. By attempting to work and live alongside the white population, he may also be viewed as being practical rather than revolutionary.
Summary – Chapter Two, ‘Boyhood Days’
With freedom, Washington saw two things happen that were ‘generally true throughout the South’. Firstly, many slaves changed their names and secondly they left the plantation for at least a few days or weeks to feel certain they were free. Many former slaves wanted a different name to that of their former owner, so many changed them to names such as Lincoln or Sherman.
Washington’s step-father sent for his mother and the children after the war as he was living and working in West Virginia. They went, but still kept in touch with their former owners. They moved to Malden and lived in a cabin near the salt furnaces and there were many other cabins in the area. He recalls there was ‘drinking, gambling, quarrels, fights, and shockingly immoral practices’.
The first number he learned was ‘18’ as this was the one allotted to his step-father and was written on his barrels at the furnace. He remembers having a longing to learn to read and induced his mother to get him a book. One day she brought him an old copy of Webster’s spelling book, as she wished to encourage him, and he taught himself ‘the greater portion’ of the alphabet.
While struggling to teach himself, a young African-American boy came to Malden and he had learned to read in Ohio. When others learned of his knowledge, he was asked to read a newspaper and was surrounded by groups of men and women. Washington used to envy him for this.
Around this time, they discussed having a school for ‘Negro’ children. This would be the first in the area and they had to find a teacher. The boy was deemed too young, but another young man from Ohio appeared and he was employed. Each family had to pay a certain amount and the teacher spent a day with each family.
Washington describes how everyone wanted to learn (as ‘a whole race trying to go to school’). Day and night schools were filled when teachers were secured and it was a ‘great ambition’ of older people to learn to read the Bible before they died.
However, his step-father kept him working with him rather than sending him to school. Despite his disappointment, he was still determined to learn to read. He had some evening lessons and finally won his case to go to day school for a few months. To do so, he worked until 9 am and then 2 hours after school as well.
When he started school, he only had one name, Booker, but at the time of enrolment he said he was called Booker Washington. He found out when he was older that his mother had given him the name ‘Booker Taliaferro’ soon after he was born, but this had been forgotten. When he learned of this, he revived it and this is part of his name now.
Even though he has wished more than once that he had ancestors and an inherited fortune, he also thinks he would have been tempted to rely on this if this had been the case. In addition, with having no ancestry of his own he decided he would leave a record for his children to be proud of and to encourage them ‘to still higher effort’. He explains that the ‘Negro youth’ starts out with ‘the presumption against him’ and that the white youth with a ‘proud family history’ is given a ‘stimulus’ to encourage him to succeed.
With reference to his own family, despite their poverty his mother adopted a young orphan called James while they were living in West Virginia.
The narrative shifts again to explain that he went from working in the salt furnace to the coal mine. At this time and later, he used to envy the white boy who had no obstacles in his way to becoming anything such as a Bishop or the President. He ends the chapter by emphasizing that he does not envy the white boy as he once did. He argues instead that it is a ‘universal’ that merit is rewarded no matter the skin color of a person and is proud of the race he belongs to.
Analysis – Chapter Two, ‘Boyhood Days’
A desire for identity, history and knowledge are crucial aspects of Washington’s early years and he describes how these points were significant for many other former slaves too. Although he barely dwells on this subject, he illuminates for the reader how slaves were impoverished to the extent that they were not even privy to their own life histories or family names. Many had been forced to have the names of their slave owners, and with freedom the opportunity to change them was taken by many.
This freedom and independence from their owners is also marked by the increase in new opportunities to take part in education. Washington’s determination is seen to be remarkable as he aimed to teach himself the alphabet, and his story is all the more poignant for the influence his poverty stricken mother had in giving him her moral support and a second-hand spelling book.