By Teodrose Fikre
There was a time during my younger days where I despised Booker T. Washington. I saw him as a through and through step and fetch it negro who was willing to sell his people down the river in order to use them as a political stepping stone. In all honesty, I saw him much the same way I see today’s black conservatives. I thought it preposterous that he was preaching to a people who just gained freedom to be patient and to cast their buckets in the same lands where they were just a few years prior being bled with impunity.
With time though, the more I observe the state of our community, the more I am beginning to reassess his advice. The exodus out of the south and resettlement into cities like Chicago, Newark, Cleveland and townships across the North and Midwest was supposed to usher in an age of black resurgence and communal wealth. In reality, the race north led to a quagmire where the masses of our community are stuck behind a wall of poverty and hopelessness while the talented tenth are chasing the American dream.
It was not supposed to be this way, the dream of Du Bois was for the talented 10th to lead the rest out of the wilderness and establish businesses within the community and in the process build up communal wealth. In an ironic twist, the Civil Rights era abrogated this dream as the rush to integrate led to a rupture between the well to do and the rest who are stuck in a cyclical indigence. The state of “black” America is in dire straits, the little progress we make is nullified by a form of neo-enslavement as the prison-industrial complex is re-instituting legalized bondage, wealth on a communal basis is nearly non-existent, and more and more people continue to be mired in a life sentence of destitution and dependence.
It is this gnawing reality that is making me rethink the position of Booker T. Washington. I observe how immigrants from other countries come into this nation and establish a foothold. While I can’t dismiss the institutional barriers that prevent our community from climbing the social ladder, I nevertheless have to acknowledge another aspect of what keeps us at a disadvantage. We are at a structural disadvantage. I can speak on this since I wear two hats of sorts, as an immigrant from Ethiopia I see how others are able to succeed. As a man who grew up within the African-American experience, I can attest to the obstacles that “black” folk have to climb over in order to make it.
While we work on removing the barriers, we can fix the structural issues that we have control over. I’ve written about this in a prior article, but if we don’t find a way to build up communal wealth and build up a way to reinvest our dollars and resources where we live, we will continue to lag as a community. It is in this light that I’m beginning to think that Booker T. Washington might have been right. Moderation might have served us better than to rush head long into integration without the building up the capacity within our people to ensure communal and generational wealth. Martin Luther King, near the end of his life realized this fact as well. He told a group of supporters behind closed doors ““What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.”
Although I’ve moved a bit on my thinking with respect to Booker T. Washington, I still don’t hold him in the same company as Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey for one reason. While he was telling his people to slow down and to cast their buckets where they are, he was casting his pails in opulence and ivory towers. A leader who wants to lead better do so by letting his actions follow his rhetoric, Booker T. Washington did no such thing as he sent his kids to private schools in France and living the life. While I discount his sincerity, I nonetheless concede he might have been right when it came to his admonition.