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Booker T. Washington's Rhetoric: Commanding Performance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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Booker T. Washington's classic Up from Slavery is unquestionably the finest black autobiography ever written by a European-American. In the final sentence of the book's preface, Washington notes, “without the painstaking and generous assistance of Mr. Max Bennett Thrasher I would not have succeeded in any satisfactory degree.” This is a typical Washingtonian understatement. Thrasher wrote the book. Beginning that same paragraph, Washington has declared, “I have tried to tell a simple, straight-forward story, with no attempt at embellishment. My regret is that what I have attempted to do has been done so imperfectly.” This is either false modesty or a harsh assessment of his ghost writer. Since Thrasher remained in Washington's employ until his abrupt death (from appendicitis) in 1903, we must infer that “the Wizard” was not so displeased with their collaborative product. Washington had no peers in the use of rhetorical humility as a strategy of manipulation.

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Research Article
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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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NOTES

1. Washington, Booker T., Up From Slavery, in Three Negro Classics, ed. Franklin, John Hope (New York: Avon, 1965), p. xxvGoogle Scholar. Biographical information on Washington is based on Harlan's, Louis biographies, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972)Google Scholar; and Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983)Google Scholar. As Harlan explains, Thrasher wrote nearly all of Washington's publications and many of his letters between 1895 and 1903. Typically the two of them would meet in Washington's private Pullman car, Washington would dictate a rough draft, and Thrasher would produce a finished version. Sometimes Washington approved the final draft, and sometimes Thrasher sent the work directly to the publisher. See Harlan, , Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, pp. 246–47.Google Scholar

2. Baker, Houston, in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)Google Scholar, has recently argued that Washington ought to be understood as a master rhetorician. On this point, his argument is persuasive, but one might argue that Washington's deceptions are not altogether praiseworthy. See, for example, Smith, David Lionel, “Black Figures, Signs, Voices,” Review 11 (1989): 136.Google Scholar

3. Hooper, William Councill, “principal”Google Scholar of State Normal and Industrial School (later renamed Alabama A and M) enjoyed preeminence until Washington's speech; afterward, he faded rapidly into oblivion. See Logan, Rayford and Winston, Michael, Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: Norton, 1982), p. 138.Google Scholar

4. For background on racial aspects of this era's discourse, see Williamson, Joel, The Crucible of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Hofstadter, Richard, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon, 1955)Google Scholar; and Logan, Rayford, The Betrayal of the Negro (New York: Dial Press, 1954).Google Scholar

5. Meier, August, Negro Thought in America, 1800–1915 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963), pp. 1516, 4258Google Scholar, passim.

6. See Harlan, Louis, ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, 14 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 19721989), vol. 4, p. 26.Google Scholar

7. Meier's account of black responses to Washington is especially useful. See Negro Thought in America, pp. 85118, 207–55.Google Scholar

8. Nonetheless, we must note the ironic fact that opera was already a moribund form by the time these Negroes and their Euro-American role models embraced it. The turn of the century marked its final efflorescence. With the demise of Wagner (1883), Verdi (1901, with Falstaff, his last major work appearing in 1893), and Puccini (who lived until 1924, though his major work appeared from 1896–1904), the great age of opera had ended. Though it remains a thriving industry even in our own time, it is an art form undead at best. The role of the opera companies is curatorial rather than creative. Consequently, these black artists evince a fundamental backwardness, a kind of aesthetic necrophilia. Creativity thus spent was bound to be wasted and the attendant aspirations could only fail.

9. See, for example, Booker T. Washington Papers, vol. 3, pp. 397402.Google Scholar

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