Concluding Remarks on Booker T. Washington
Curtis J. Evans
Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity
University of Chicago
As I look over David Sehat's and W. Fitzhugh Brundage's responses to my reflections on Washington, I've identified the issues of assigning retrospective blame or moral culpability to historical subjects and agency as the most important topics of our debate. Sehat reminds us that "moral agency is situated in historical context" and Brundage writes that he "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" (Brundage adds however, that our exchanges and the recent biography of Washington by Robert Norrell have caused him to rethink his previous views). No one who is aware of Washington's public comments about the seeming necessity of segregation and his concomitant clandestine support of efforts to undermine various forms of legal segregation can deny the complex nature of his life. Therefore, any attempt to affix blame or responsibility on him for the nature of black oppression in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is difficult, even if one is inclined to assess historical actors as morally culpable. Although I am inclined to share Du Bois's judgment that Washington's economic program practically accepted the inferiority of blacks, I see the point of Sehat's argument that Washington "stands as a figure of thwarted intention, pathos, and tragedy." This was precisely because of the "structural determinants and system of oppression" under which he and other blacks had to live and fight against. So I am just as concerned as Sehat and Brundage that affixing pejorative labels to (such as the Great Accommodator and Uncle Tom) or blaming a constrained figure like Washington is at best unhelpful and at worst shuts off historical inquiry and reflects a lack of appreciation of the political and economic realities that Washington and most African Americans faced in his day.
Yet, I do not want to leave things here. I feel some discomfort in structural schemas that seemingly efface historical subjects. Sehat chides scholars for their "exclusive focus on Washington's intellectual positions and performative strategies," which he feels detracts from proper attention to "structural determinants of his actions that would help explain [as one example] his criticism of black ministers." It is hard to say if my reaction to Sehat's use of the word determinant is based on a general philosophical difference about human freedom (with due attention to historical context and place) or the agency of the particular individual under discussion (that is, Washington in the Jim Crow South). I do think we might miss something very important about our historical subjects if too much emphasis is placed on structural determinants. That is my most basic and modest assertion of disagreement with Sehat.
My invocation of Thomas Haskell's claim that there is "no premium for standing in the middle of the road" requires some clarification. My point of agreement with Haskell was a rather narrow one. I concur with his argument that we as scholars are as passionate about issues as those we write about and that our default position is to take a moral stand, though how we express our moral judgments may differ in our actual writing about historical subjects. On some issues there is no premium for standing in the middle. In my view, for example, there is no middle ground about concluding that Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman, who served as governor and a national Senator from South Carolina and was Washington's contemporary, holds a great deal of responsibility for the oppression of blacks in the South, though my judgments about his actions should or do not necessarily foreclose historical inquiry regarding his personality and social context.(1)
Haskell's arguments about agency also seem to be in the background in my discussions with Sehat. He argues that causal reasoning figures in all historical explanatory schemas and that to hold people responsible is to regard them as causally efficacious agents. Haskell asserts that attribution of responsibility to historical subjects presupposes that they are capable of choosing (within limits) what consequences they produce or intend.(2) This robust notion of agency seems too freighted with ideas about intentionality, foresight, and causality without due attention to unforeseen and unintended consequences (and unconscious longings and desires). I am not at all convinced that historical subjects possess the kind of foresight and intentionality that Haskell's reasoning implies. Nor am I persuaded that the assertion of subjects' ability to choose under particularly constraining circumstances necessarily involves a judgment about their ability to cause or produce a certain effect. In the end, though, all we can do is represent and narrate in a very imprecise fashion how historical subjects relate to broader structural forces that constrain and in part produce them. My claim simply is that linking their actions and words to clearly identifiable effects is a nearly impossible task.
Let me conclude with one more observation about Washington. Sehat's attention to Washington's civilizing program and his critique of black religion rightly highlights the importance of religion for promoters of racial uplift at the turn of the century. Neither Louis Harlan's nor Robert J. Norrell's biography of Washington emphasize these issues sufficiently. We learn quite more from Norrell than we already knew about what he describes as the white nationalists' steadfast opposition to Washington's program of industrial education. We are also treated to a few speculative comments about Washington's brief stint at Wayland Baptist Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.(3) Yet no full biography of Washington adequately addresses his approach to religion and the way that religious imagery figures in his laudatory remarks about his most important mentor, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. I am not aware of any work, not even Sehat's essay, that helps us appreciate how Armstrong becomes not simply a Christ-like figure in Washington's religious imagination, but a person who takes the place of Jesus in many ways for Washington.(4) Norrell is correct when he argues that Washington's religiosity was "coolly detached rather than warmly evangelical."(5) But the warmly evangelical aspect of Washington's religiosity seemed to be reserved for his descriptions of Armstrong. Though even for Washington's time exaggerations about a person's character for political causes or at eulogies may have roamed into the realm of unreality (witness, for example, Du Bois and the Niagara Movement's deployment of John Brown as a martyr and freedom fighter whose spirit lived on!), one is still struck by the extremely high value that Washington placed on Armstrong's character at the latter's funeral. Armstrong is not simply Christ-like, but he becomes a kind of divine figure. Is it mere rhetorical excess when Washington lauded Armstrong for showing the "world that there is a way to save the most degenerate and despised"? He spoke of acts committed by Armstrong that were "too sacred and precious for utterance." Washington hopes not to be misunderstood for seeming "not only to revere but to worship [Armstrong's] memory." With evangelical fervor Washington spoke movingly of Armstrong's "great heart [which] held us all so constantly, so strongly, [and] so tenderly."(6) Why would a figure like Washington, labeled as a secular pragmatist by some, resort to this elevated religious language about an all too human figure? Yes, too much can easily be made of a eulogy (though his laudatory remarks about Armstrong are not by any means limited to this eulogy), but do our biographies of Washington adequately explain this religious side of his life and how this contrasts so sharply with his more negative characterizations of black religion and his more instrumentalist visions of religion more generally? Does primary attention to structural determinants help to clarify this puzzling aspect of Washington's personal life? I am not convinced that it does.
I am obviously not calling for a new biography, especially after Norrell's rich work has come out, though my analysis does suggest that more work remains to be done. Even so, we can thank Sehat for pushing us beyond traditional narratives of Washington that fail to take seriously his robust and critical engagement with black religion and his civilizing educational program for black southerners. To the extent that deeper attention is paid to these aspects of Washington's personality and his wider social environment, our knowledge of this crucial period in American history and of this enigmatic figure will be enriched.
1. As I write this essay, this debate reminds me of recent disputes in the field of religious studies. I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am in the position of Stephen Prothero who urges us to make our moral judgments manifest and stop suspending our ethical critiques of our subjects. In other words, tell them what we really think of them. I am more sympathetic to Orsi's critique of Prothero, though I believe that Orsi's call for an "open, disciplined, and engaged attentiveness to an other" seems to me to be compatible with Haskell's conclusion that we are passionate and morally committed persons who cannot be otherwise in matters of historical inquiry. I am aware, as Orsi points out, that questions of power and our place as university scholars place special moral demands and responsibilities upon us as we engage in our work and try to be attentive to how our representations (of the dead and living) have real consequences in the world. For the original impetus of this exchange, see Stephen Prothero, "Belief Unbracketed: A Case for the Religion Scholar to Reveal More of Where He or She is Coming From" Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter/Spring 2004), Vol. 32, no. 2.
2. Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore and London: University of John Hopkins Press, 1998), 11.
3. On Washington's stint at Wayland and the opposition of white nationalists to his educational program, see Robert J. Norrell, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2009), 38, 48-51, 56-57, 83-87, 116-119, 185-197.
4. For an incomplete and (in my view) an unpersuasive analysis of Washington's religious sensibilities, see Wilson J. Moses, "More Than an Artichoke: The Pragmatic Religion of Booker T. Washington," in W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., Booker T. Washington and Black Progress: Up From Slavery 100 Years Later (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 107-130.
5. Ibid., 38.
6. "A Speech at the Memorial Service of Samuel Chapman Armstrong," May 25, 1893, in Louis R. Harlan, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), III, 318, 321 (which contains Harlan’s footnote on this speech). Harlan notes in the editorial comments of this volume that the Southern Workman, produced by Hampton Institute, stripped some of the "poignant and psychologically revealing phrases" of Washington’s eulogy. Apparently some of this lofty language about Armstrong was a bit too much for the editor of a journal that strongly supported Washington’s program for industrial education!