Thursday, February 11, 2010

Up From Slavery

Every once in a while, I study something with one of the girls in homeschool that gets me so excited, I'm downright annoying. The Revolutionary War was like that -- my favorite period of history. My latest thrill: Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery.

I wasn't expecting to enjoy this. In fact, when I looked at the book in the library, I wondered if we should just read excerpts -- it looked like it would be pretty lethargic reading. OH, no. Fascinating book! Fascinating life! Fascinating, fascinating man!

The actual story of his life is remarkable -- born a slave, the lowest of the low . . . the determination he had to get himself an education, whatever it took (and it took a lot) . . . and by the end of his life, he's a celebrated figure around the world, honored by presidents, millionaires, even Queen Victoria. But most of all, I love hearing his insights into humanity and education and race. A couple of the principles he expounded to the world that I most admire:

- When he started the Tuskegee Institute, he was adamant about the fact that they needed to provide industrial education and home life education to these newly freed slaves as much as academic education. He was frustrated with negroes floating around the South flaunting a scanty knowledge of Latin phrases and conjugations, but who had no marketable skills needed in the society and who didn't know enough to even brush their teeth. Book smarts is NOT superior to life smarts.

- He thought that blacks and whites were both hurt by slavery. For instance, the institution caused both the slave and the owner to see manual labor as a dishonorable thing, something to be avoided. But God created man to work, even before the fall, and in our work we find dignity.

- He emphasized up to the end of his life that the way for race relations to improve in the South (and in the whole country) was not for blacks to rise up demanding rights, but for blacks to prove themselves to their white detractors as peaceable, indispensible members of the society with much to contribute. "No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward," he wrote. Reminds me of a quote from Oprah that I've always loved: "Excellence is the best deterrent to racism and sexism."

- A principle that he repeatedly emphasizes as a key for the success of his people is one that I think applies to all of us -- the idea of learning to do "a common thing in an uncommon manner". To find something that society needs and offer it to them at an exceptional level of quality. "In the long run, the world is going to have the best, and any difference in race, religion, or previous history will not long keep the world from what it wants." I LOVE this. Do a common thing in an uncommon manner.

I love this book. Really. I think every one of you that is reading my blog right now needs to go to your local library, check out a copy, and read it. Look past the boring, formal voice typical of the writing of the period and listen to the heart and mind of this man. Absolutely fascinating.

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