Thinking with (and about) Mr. Washington
W. Fitzhugh Brundage
William B. Umstead Professor of History
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The recent exchanges between Curtis J. Evans and David Sehat about Booker T. Washington in the Journal of Southern Religion have been models of thoughtful and learned debate. After reading them in conjunction with Robert J. Norrell's new biography of Washington, there can be no question that Washington warrants this renewed attention. And when read along with two recent reviews of Norrell's biography, these exchanges remind us that Washington remains a Rorschach test.(1) During his lifetime and since, Washington has provoked sharply divergent opinions about his motivations, actions, and legacy. In particular, he has stood accused of moral culpability in the oppression of his race. Many historically important figures, Martin Van Buren and Thomas A. Edison among them, provoke few if any debates about their moral culpability. For others, though, moral culpability is assigned selectively. For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois's colossal errors in championing Woodrow Wilson during the election of 1912 or in endorsing World War I carry little stigma and merit little attention. Washington, however, stands accused of being the handmaiden of the whites who strove to achieve the "highest stage of white supremacy."
Conflicting conclusions were recently on display in the pages of the New Yorker and the New York Times. Kelefa Sanneh, in his New Yorker review of Norrell's biography, chides Norrell for belaboring the constraints within which Washington worked. Norrell's Washington is not a formidable figure but rather a diminished man, a prisoner of his time and his circumstances. For Sanneh the street fighter Washington depicted in Louis Harlan's biography of the "Wizard of Tuskegee" is a more compelling and impressive (if tragic) character.(2) Shelby Steele, writing in the New York Times Book Review, reaches starkly different conclusions about both Washington and Norrell's biography. Steele applauds Norrell "for his attention to historical context," which "has the effect of normalizing Washington." Steele posits that Washington's accommodation of segregation was "a rather brave and pro-black position," and concludes by applauding Norrell for giving "back to America one of its greatest heroes."(3) What is striking about the perspectives of these two reviewers is how closely they track long-running arguments over Washington. Washington, for these reviewers, is a mirror in which the face of heroic black leadership is either revealed or exposed. Inevitably, both reviewers enlist W.E.B. Du Bois to bolster their arguments, so that Washington and Du Bois become iconic adversaries in a bi-polar black community.
These various but familiar assessments of Washington by Sanneh and Steele underscore the service that Sehat and Evans have performed in their exchange. Perhaps their most important contribution is to take Washington seriously as a thinker and a public intellectual. Washington, of course, preferred to portray himself as a man of action who mocked the folly and extravagance of pedantry. The common black laborer who squandered his time studying Latin was a familiar target of his scorn. Yet, Washington's disdain for the life of the mind was feigned; as Sehat and Evans point out, Washington energetically participated in crucial debates about religion, race, and democracy. The surface veneer of Washington's utilitarian pronouncements on the issues of his day obscured his more complex and comprehensive understanding of and facility with abstract thought. And whereas Louis Harlan portrays Washington as a man consumed by the pursuit and exercise of power, Sehat and Evans locate the spring of Washington's ambitions elsewhere. Conviction, at least as much as crass opportunism, motivated Washington. Thus, to dismiss Washington's lampooning of black ministers as merely playing to racist audiences is to fail to understand how his critique of black religion fit into his systematic philosophy of racial advancement. (It is a striking coincidence that Ed Blum, in his W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet, has insisted that we acknowledge the centrality of religion and spirituality to Du Bois's thought while Sehat and Evans are drawing our attention to Washington's engagement with religion.)(4)
Sehat and Evans differ most sharply over the historian's obligation to address and assign moral culpability. At first glance, Sehat and Evans may appear to be stumbling down the same well-traveled path taken by Sanneh and Steele. But Sehat and Evans's exchange over whether we should assign blame to Washington for the triumph of Jim Crow racism is instead elevated by its uncommon clarity and cogency. Moreover, they ponder carefully the stakes involved in assessing historical agency and assigning moral culpability to historical agents. That Sehat and Evans disagree about the scope of Washington's agency is clear. For Sehat, the essential starting place to understand Washington is the "structural determinants and system of oppression" within which he had to operate. Anticipating the interpretation of Norrell's biography, Sehat reminds readers of the precariousness of Washington's position and the manifest constraints—ideological, political, and economic—that restricted his field of action. Evans concedes that Washington was caught up in "an ensnaring discourse of racial advance and civilization," but nevertheless insists that he had "limited but real choices." Their different interpretations of Washington's agency leads in turn to vexing questions of historical responsibility. Sehat readily acknowledges that Washington "bears a certain amount of responsibility for the system of segregation that his statements reinforced," but insists that excessive concern for assigning blame to Washington risks diverting our attention from the structures of dominations that, to the greatest degree, dictated Washington's course. For Sehat, Washington is both interesting and important, not because of his culpability, but because through him historians can gain access to many of the central issues of his era. Evans counters that "we show more respect to our historical subjects if we do attempt to understand what choices and options they had rather than using them as mere pawns or acted-upon-objects to illuminate a wider social background."
Let me confess that my own approach to Washington has been closer to Sehat's than Evans's. Like Sehat, I have found Washington good "to think with." Because of his multiple roles as a celebrity, author, educator, politician, reformer, and perceived exemplary representative of his race, Washington was a participant in many of the most important debates and events of his era. As such, he warrants far more scholarly attention than he has received in recent years. (It is striking that the centenary of the publication of Washington's Up From Slavery passed in 2001 virtually without notice.) I previously assumed that until historians cast off inherited judgments about Washington's culpability in the advance of white supremacy, no scholarly reconsideration of Washington was likely or perhaps even possible. I can well understand why Sehat contends that it is "more productive to bracket the issue of responsibility" so that we can get on to the more productive enterprise of "illuminating" Washington's world.
Evans's rejoinder to Sehat has prodded me to reconsider my assumptions about how best to approach Washington. I now agree with Evans that a "hard embrace of historicism" is not the way to recover Washington from neglect. Rather than sidestepping discussions of Washington's moral agency, culpability, and/or responsibility, Evans persuades me that they are essential components of any understanding of Washington and his age. Indeed, calibrating carefully Washington's moral agency and responsibility may be exactly what is needed to revise stale caricatures of Washington (and, to a degree, W.E.B. Du Bois). Because his position and power were so singular in his heyday it is vital to understand where, when, and how Washington exercised his limited agency to subvert or reconcile himself with his race's oppression.
In closing, these exchanges confirm that Washington is "good to think with." Not only is the study of his life and thought essential to understanding his age, but also it relates to pressing questions about the purpose of scholarship and the relationship of historical judgments to morality. I only hope that others will follow Sehat, Evans, and Norrell's lead and get to know Washington much better. When they do so, they will have Sehat and Evans to thank for helping to clear the trail.
1. Robert J. Norrell, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2009).
2. Kelefa Sanneh, Annals of Politics, "The Wizard," New Yorker, February 2, 2009, p. 26-28.
3. Shelby Steele, "Pride and Compromise," New York Times Book Review, February 12, 2009, p. BR-19.
4. Edward J. Blum, W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).