30 August 2004

Up from Slavery: "A painful coded work"

On this journey I read [Booker T. Washington's] Up from Slavery twice. On the second reading, after I had been nearly four months in the South, I found that the book had changed for me. It became more than the fabulous story of a disadvantaged man's rise. I began to see it as a painful coded work, making separate signals even in a single paragraph to Northerners, Southerners, and blacks.

I also began to see the book as the work of a man constantly concerned to raise funds for his school. That should have been obvious to me always, but it hadn't been; that had been swept away by the power of the fable. Below that primary appeal, however, there were others: the man of the world appealing knowledgeably to the very rich on behalf of the wretched, representing himself as honorable and worthy and manly and educated; yet at the same time taking care to do the contrary thing, and making it clear that as a black man he knew his place.

Hence his confident, socially knowing talk, like any solid late-nineteenth-century citizen, of the "best people" and the "vices" of "the lower class of people." But he is mortified when, on a train journey from Augusta to Atlanta in Georgia, in a Pullman car "full of Southern white men," two ladies from Boston, "ignorant, it seems, of the customs of the South," insist on inviting him to supper. The meal seems very long. As soon as he can, he breaks away from the ladies to go to the smoking room, where the men now are, "to see how the land lay." It is all right; the men know who he is and are anxious to introduce themselves to him.

In England he develops a high regard for the aristocracy and the time and money they devote to philanthropic works. He is impressed by the deference of servants, who are content to be servants all their working life and, unlike American servants, use the words "master" and "mistress" without any constraint. In that ambiguous observation there are consoling messages both for blacks and Southern whites. He becomes friendly, he says, with the Duchess of Sutherland. She is a famous beauty. But as a black man he will be out of place to say so directly. He writes, "I may add that I believe the Duchess of Sutherland is said to be the most beautiful woman in England."

So many snares; so many people to please; so many contradictions to resolve; so many possibilities of destruction. The achievement was great. But at what cost. He died at the age of fifty-nine.
SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 153-154.

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