The Education of Booker T. Washington

American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations

Michael Rudolph West

Columbia University Press

The Education of Booker T. Washington

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Pub Date: November 2008

ISBN: 9780231130493

296 Pages

Format: Paperback

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Pub Date: January 2006

ISBN: 9780231130486

296 Pages

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Pub Date: January 2006

ISBN: 9780231503822

296 Pages

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The Education of Booker T. Washington

American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations

Michael Rudolph West

Columbia University Press

Booker T. Washington has long held an ambiguous position in the pantheon of black leadership. Lauded by some in his own lifetime as a black George Washington, he was also derided by others as a Benedict Arnold. In The Education of Booker T. Washington, Michael West offers a major reinterpretation of one of the most complex and controversial figures in American history. West reveals the personal and political dimensions of Washington's journey "up from slavery." He explains why Washington's ideas resonated so strongly in the post-Reconstruction era and considers their often negative influence in the continuing struggle for equality in the United States. West's work also establishes a groundwork for understanding the ideological origins of the civil rights movement and discusses Washington's views on the fate of race and nation in light of those of Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.

West argues that Washington's analysis was seen as offering a "solution" to the problem of racial oppression in a nation professing its belief in democracy. That solution was the idea of "race relations." In practice, this theory buttressed segregation by supposing that African Americans could prosper within Jim Crow's walls and without the normal levers by which other Americans pursued their interests. Washington did not, West contends, imagine a way to perfect democracy and an end to the segregationist policies of southern states. Instead, he offered an ideology that would obscure the injustices of segregation and preserve some measure of racial peace.

White Americans, by embracing Washington's views, could comfortably find a way out of the moral and political contradictions raised by the existence of segregation in a supposedly democratic society. This was (and is) Washington's legacy: a form of analysis, at once obvious and concealed, that continues to prohibit the realization of a truly democratic politics.
West's arguments...are fascinating and compel us to rethink our views of this complex and contradictory man. The Historian
Illuminating... West's study stands out for its innovative argument as well as the author's deep personal investment. Publishers Weekly
The author offers interesting assessments of other commentators on race... Significant ideas. Kirkus
West's reflections offer fresh considerations on the complex consequences of American racism. Library Journal
Recommended. Choice
One of the most important books on Washington and on black thought in recent years. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Journal of American History
This is a book that must be read. Gregory Mixon, American Historical Review
An important work. Mia Roth, The European Legacy
Preface
Introduction
1. "The Great and Intricate Problem": Democracy, the Negro Problem, and the Idea of Race Relations
2. "Negroes Whose Habits You Know": The Boy, "Booker," Progress, and "Racial Feeling"
3. "They Will Pull Against You the Load Downward": The Freedpeople's Failure and Booker Washington's Rescue
4. "Gathered from Miscellaneous Sources": Democratic Possibilities and Other Kinds of "Racial Feelings"
5. "Prepared for the Exercise of These Privileges": A New Negro and the End of Democracy
Notes
Index

Many [of Booker T. Washington's supporters] called him a visionary who offered a means of solving 'the Negro problem.' My argument is that Washington's solution was an idea, a theory... called 'race relations,' that opened the way for the ideological reconciliation of two opposites: racist proscription and democracy. Judged by the esteem of his contemporaries, Washington's idea was a great success. Judged by the sorry fate of millions of African Americans, Washington's leadership was a failure.... The power of Washington's idea—the race relations idea—is the key to understanding the successful progress of Jim Crow America and the shape of the civil rights movement that sought to dismantle Jim Crow

About the Author

Michael Rudolph West is associate professor of history and director of Africana Studies at the College of the Holy Cross.