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Up from Slavery

by Booker T Washington

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Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, though both former slaves, were very different men. Washington was more conciliatory; Douglass was more concerned with justice. Washington was quick to point out that some slave owners took good care of their slaves; Douglass was quick to point out that this did not in any way justify enslaving another human being. Both men understood, however, the key that freed men and women: education.

The best chains available to the slave-owner were the chains of ignorance—specifically, illiteracy. Keeping slaves from reading was a high priority, because slaves who could read became “uppity”—that is, they better understood that slave owners had no moral authority. Both Douglass and Washington blossomed into articulate opponents of the institution of slavery only after they had learned to read in spite of organized hostility.

“From the time that I can remember having any thoughts about anything,” writes Washington in Up from Slavery, “I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read.” That desire had profound consequences! It is barely an overstatement to say that learning to read is a critical step toward learning to think.

What makes a man bestial? Oftentimes it is his inability to reflect upon his attitude or his actions, to step back and see himself in context. What invites a man to reflect? Solitude in nature invites reflection, as does a serious dialogue with a close friend—but the art that hones our ability to reflect in even these serendipitous circumstances is the art of reading. Holding still and thinking hard isn’t something people like to do, unless they are engaged by the argument of a well-written book.

There’s a tendency in our culture to despise books today. Education has become a right rather than a privilege, and many students brag about making it through a semester without having to read an entire book. The only people who should view that as good news are the people who would like to enslave them.

by Jeff Baldwin