I purchased my ticket to see Red Tails yesterday! It’s the story of the first Black pilots to fly under the banner of the U.S. armed forces. They were the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477 Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and they served in a segregated U.S. Army during World War II. They trained at my and my father’s alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, right on Moton Field. They were known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Or like that proud, awestruck Black man working on the chain gang says in the HBO original movie, The Tuskegee Airmen, “they’s colored flyers…”
The tiny act of typing that last paragraph gave me goosebumps, as I’m a very proud Tuskegee University alumna. The mainstream release of the Tuskegee Airmen story recalls the roles Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute), and its founder, Booker T. Washington, played in America at the turn of the 20th century.
And it recalls the debate about Booker T. Washington in which I find myself engaged at least every couple of years. Was Washington’s accommodationism, given the social, political, and cultural environment in which he thrived – the deeply segregated Deep South – really detrimental to Black social progress? I mean, did he even have any other choice?
Booker T. Washington has been excoriated for his philosophy on Black mobility, and his remarks given at The Cotton States and International Exposition held in Atlanta, Georgia in 1895, before a predominantly white audience. It’s a complicated address – a delicate balance between uplifting southern Blacks, but it is also careful not to be so aspirational as to inconvenience and discomfort southern whites. The following passage, for example, works hard to convey that Black folks shol’ ‘preciated whatever olive branches had been extended their way by good white folks. Washington coos:
I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race when I say that in no way have the value and manhood of the American Negro been more fittingly and generously recognized than by the managers of this magnificent Exposition at every stage of its progress. It is a recognition that will do more to cement the friendship of the two races than any occurrence since the dawn of our freedom.
Ol’ Booker laid it on thick; Washington either had the optimism of a man who had seen hide nor hair of racism before, or he was an astute politician greasing the necessary wheels and stroking the necessary egos to build the “Tuskegee Machine.” Washington goes on to say, “Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom…” Jay-Z echoes a similar sentiment in contemporary terms on 99 Problems:
…if you grew up with holes in your zapatos/you’ll celebrate the minute you was having dough. Or the freedom to taste a little bit of power, in BTW’s view.
To be sure, aint nothing wrong with being at the bottom and wanting to rush to the top when opportunity presents itself. The culture of the south in the late 1800s, however, was one hardly supportive of the lofty ambitions of a group so historically maligned, whose potential for greatness was so casually dismissed. To that end, Washington offered the following proscription against looking beyond one’s own hand for help: Cast down your buckets where you are.
Furthermore, he advises,
To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition … I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded…To those of the white race … were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.
I admit it’s a complicated idea to grasp. He asks that we put aside our differences, thus ensuring our mutual economic benefit, to wit “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.” White people weren’t trying to kick it with us in shared space; integration wasn’t some shit they were trying to hear. Washington’s approach is this: Dear Mr. Charlie, you don’t have to like us, but you’ll respect our ability to cooperatively make money. And also: Dear brothers and sisters, there is infinite honor and infinite power in earning the money you spend – on your own terms. He notes that:
It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.
Washington spoke of economic self-determination for Black Americans. And he spoke to white Americans in terms they could understand and process — economic power. Supporting the prosperity of Black Americans didn’t only benefit Black Americans. Our fates were intertwined.
Washington wasn’t opposed to social and political progress on its face. Rather, he saw economic prosperity as the first step in the march toward equality. And that’s really not all that inflammatory an approach. Would it work for all time? Absolutely not. However, Washington’s efforts, his accommodation at that time and in that place, created a powerful network of educators, entrepreneurs, and political and community leaders whose contributions to American history would last well beyond him ingratiating Jim Crow. What’s that adage about teaching a man to fish?
But what do I know? I’m just a girl who loves her Crimson and Old Gold.
Support the legacy.