Thursday, December 1, 2011


"We are all already contaminated by each other." Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House. 

E. Ethelbert Millers asks: "Please respond to this statement made by Booker T. Washington in 1895. "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."

This is one of the single most important statements in American history. Few declarations have had its far-reaching consequences for life in the United States. After 244 years of slavery, after the Civil War when white Americans were struggling with the question of what to do with all the freed slaves in their midst (Send them back to Africa? Give them 40 acres and a mule? Live with them as equals?), Booker T. Washington presented a metaphor that was widely embraced by whites as the solution they were looking for. His speech was delivered on September 18, 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. It stressed the virtue of "casting down one's buckets" ("No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top"), the value of hard work, self-reliance, and the loyalty of Negroes to their fellow white countrymen ("You can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen").

 In effect, Booker, who would become the most powerful and influential black man in America between the 1890s and 1920s, told white Americans that they didn't have to worry anymore about newly freed black men and woman---Negroes would keep themselves separate, offering whites no competition as the young nation recovered from civil war and, as the so-called second Industrial Revolution began around 1850, provided whites during the era of racial segregation with a clear field of opportunities for creating wealth and financial dynasties that have lasted into the 21st century. By contrast, the majority of blacks in the decades following Booker's declaration remained mired in poverty.

His opponents, like Du Bois, would refer to this declaration as the "Atlanta Compromise," a sequestering of the Negro for roughly three generations, "shelving" black people, one might say, putting them "out of play" until the Civil Rights Movement began. These opponents understood that "separate" was seldom (if ever) "equal" in the distribution of wealth, resources, and opportunity. And while Booker's educational model at Tuskegee was imitated widely throughout the south, the so-called practical agricultural and industrial skills his program offered were based on his understanding of agriculture and economics during his youth during the final days of slavery, that is, these skills were fast becoming obsolete at the dawn of the 20th century.

One of my most popular PBS docu-dramas, "Booker," which I co-wrote with John Allman (and which received a 1985 Writers Guild Award in the category of television children's shows, as well as several other prizes), highlighted Booker's important role---his vision---for providing education for freed slaves (and native Americans). We can admire, I think, Booker's clear sense that what blacks achingly needed for their advancement after centuries of slavery (when some southern states made it illegal for slave-owners to teach blacks to read) was education and skills. Marcus Garvey stated that Booker had been his inspiration, and we know Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam picked up the torch of racial separatism and self-reliance after Garvey's Back to Africa movement failed. While this separatist strain still appeals to some black Americans (and also white supremacists, who often point approvingly to Booker), the more integrationist vision of Du Bois, one of the founding members of the NAACP, which was carried forward by Martin Luther King Jr., politically carried the day, as is indicated by the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States. 

 As a black American, I've always found the positive dimensions of the black self-reliance and economic empowerment argument to be very persuasive, and even a matter of urgency for black people; but, as a Buddhist and at the end of the day, I obviously see the world in terms of inter-dependence, i.e., an ontological position in which all things are intertwined, inter-penetrate, and are all already integrated. And these two ways of seeing are not disjunctive. One can be mindful of the historical disenfranchisement of black America and work toward improving our economic lives and, as the Bodhissattva vow urges us, work to increase happiness and freedom from suffering for all sentient beings with whom our lives are intertwined.

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