It had occurred to me that I might call my recently completed book about the partnership between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald Up from Prejudice, so it was with eager anticipation that I read Up From History a new biography of Washington by Robert J. Norrell. The title implied an effort to release Washington from the caricature that had solidified into his much diminished reputation and the widespread perception of him as an accomodationist Uncle Tom rather than a black leader of stature. I was not disappointed.
Norrell, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee, presents the well-known facts of Washington’s journey from Virginia slave to famous educator, founder of Tuskegee and racial spokesman against a richly detailed portrait of the troubled times in which he lived — and he does so with a sympathy quite at odds with the way Washington has often been considered. Twenty-five years ago, in the Preface to The Wizard of Tuskegee, the Pulitzer Prize winning second volume of his biography of Washington, Louis Harlan wrote that his subject “had no quintessence” and that “at the center of his intellectual maze was a hall of mirrors reflecting endlessly the platitudes and dubious social science of the late nineteenth century.”
But what Harlan dismisses as a hall of mirrors Norrell sees as the heart and mind of an intelligent, realistic man confronting racial hatred so crude that it makes the reader cringe to read about it — and doing so with imagination and dignity that command respect rather than condescension. Washington lived his life, according to Norrell, on a “tightrope between candor and survival.” This new book, like all biography, itself a gentle balancing act between the accumulation of facts and the interpretation of those facts, is a welcome chance to revisit a compelling story and to reassess a significant American life.
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