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Booker T. Washington, 1856-1915
My Larger Education: Being Chapters from My Experience
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1911.

Summary

In the autobiographical My Larger Education: Chapters from my Experience, Booker T. Washington provides a detailed account of the creation, development, and promotion of the Tuskegee Institute to satisfy frequent public requests for information about "the educational methods which we are now using at Tuskegee; and to illustrate, for the benefit of the members of my own race, some of the ways in which a people who are struggling upward may turn disadvantages into opportunities" (p. 15). In doing so, he also reveals complex, nuanced views about how to best promote the advancement of African Americans after Emancipation.

Washington believes in an educational system based on real-world solutions, and he approaches the problem of racial and social discrimination with the same practical attitude: "usefulness in the community where we resided was our surest and most potent protection" (p. 107). Indeed, throughout My Larger Education, concern not just for the success of African Americans, but also for their survival, leads Washington to emphasize the larger community of which African Americans are a part and the ways in which different races and regions are dependent on each other.

Washington explains that he advocates industrial, agricultural, and vocational instruction for African Americans because he privileges first-hand experience over book learning. To learn about life from the ideas of authors is, for Washington, "merely to get life second hand" (p. 12). This hands-on approach informs both Washington's views about the ideal form of African American education and his promotional strategy for gaining community and financial support for Tuskegee. Washington advocates practical approaches to education as a solution to economic and social problems in the African American community, citing numerous instances where members of local communities learned how to improve their crop yield or their daily living environment from the research conducted at the Tuskegee Institute or from educational outreach programs modeled after the school.

Throughout the text, Washington describes his efforts to convince both African Americans and whites that "the progress of each meant the advancement of the other" (p. 28). Washington promotes a style of education that he believes will teach African Americans to be productive citizens, arguing that "the best means which the Negro has for destroying race prejudice is to make himself a useful and, if possible, an indispensable member of the community in which he lives" (p. 230). Repeatedly, Washington describes African American advancement as being beneficial to both African Americans themselves and to the white-dominated economy of contemporary society.

Washington calls social and racial prejudice a "peculiar custom" of the North and South and says that such prejudice should be complied with just as one would respect the customs of a foreign country (p. 178). He also argues that in promoting progress in the South, he "will never willingly and knowingly do anything that . . . will provoke bitterness between the races or misunderstanding between the North and the South" (p. 180). But while these statements support the usual accommodationist critique of Washington that condemns him for failing to aggressively support racial integration, other sections of My Larger Education complicate that critique.

For example, Washington dines with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1901 and is surprised by the public controversy that ensues. While he asserts that he had no intention "to attack any custom of the South" because the dinner was a business arrangement and not a social call, his refusal to acknowledge the dinner's racial and social significance reveals a desire to downplay the issue of race in his interactions with the President, promoting instead his political agenda and implying that he should be judged for his leadership and moral characteristics (p. 179). Further, as Washington describes mentors and role models throughout his life, he includes notable figures that are both white and African American. His account of relationships with major public figures indicates that he was comfortable interacting with members of both races, but this interaction seemingly contradicts his famous assertion—from his 1895 Atlanta Cotton States Exposition Address (reprinted in his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery)—that "in all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress" (p. 221-222). Furthermore, Washington argues that such interracial partnerships are an ideal way to improve contemporary society.

While Washington's racial politics remain a controversial subject even today, My Larger Education complicates commonly held perceptions of his views on African American education and advancement. Scholar Howard McGary notes in his introduction to the 2004 reprint of this text that Washington has been labeled an accommodationist for promoting industrial over liberal education, for working within the unequal social system instead of critiquing it, and for not supporting the civil rights protests endorsed by W. E. B. DuBois. But rather than espousing a clearly accommodationist view in My Larger Education, Washington describes his principles as a strategy for gaining support across racial and regional boundaries and subtly affirms his desire for a society in which individuals will be judged on qualities of character rather than skin color.

Works Consulted: McGary, Howard. Introduction to My Larger Education: Chapters from My Experience, Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2004; Washington, Booker T, Up From Slavery, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1901.

Jenn Williamson

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