Happy Birthday, Booker T. Washington!

Booker T. Washington sculpture in the Mission Inn gardens, Riverside, CA, photo by Amy Cools 2017

‘My earliest recollection is of a small one-room log hut on a large slave plantation in Virginia. After the close of the war, while working in the coal-mines of West Virginia for the support of my mother, I heard in some accidental way of the Hampton Institute. When I learned that it was an institution where a black boy could study, could have a chance to work for his board, and at the same time be taught how to work and to realize the dignity of labor, I resolved to go there. Bidding my mother good-by, I started out one morning to find my way to Hampton, though I was almost penniless and had no definite idea where Hampton was. By walking, begging rides, and paying for a portion of the journey on the steam-cars, I finally succeeded in reaching the city of Richmond, Virginia. I was without money or friends. I slept under a sidewalk, and by working on a vessel next day I earned money to continue my way to the institute, where I arrived with a surplus of fifty cents. At Hampton I found the opportunity — in the way of buildings, teachers, and industries provided by the generous — to get training in the class-room and by practical touch with industrial life, to learn thrift, economy, and push. I was surrounded by an atmosphere of business, Christian influence, and a spirit of self-help that seemed to have awakened every faculty in me, and caused me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property.’ ~ Booker T. Washington, ‘The Awakening of the Negro‘, Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896

Booker T. Washington was born on April 5, 1856, and went on to become one of America’s leading educators and social reformers. He was born a slave in a simple cabin and never knew his father; he and his family were freed by the end of the Civil War when he was nine years old. Washington lived the life he would go on to advocate for his fellow black citizens: one of self-determination, self-sufficiency, hard work, thriftiness, and compromise. He believed firmly in gaining the respect of others, including those predisposed to dismiss him because of his race, solely through his own character and accomplishments. Was Washington wrong to emphasize the importance of demonstrating one’s own worth by pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps over demanding equal legal rights as citizens? Perhaps the struggle for equality had always needed multiple lines of attack to crumble the whole structure of institutionalized legal, social, and subtly inculcated racism that has plagued and undermined this nation for so long. Perhaps he was simply misguided, even naive, though the latter is hard to accept given his intellectual prowess.

Be that as it may, Washington’s ideas drove him to work harder to create educational and economic opportunities for his fellow black citizens than just about anyone else we could name. And given his hard work, his integrity in staying true to his vision despite attacks from all sides, and his premature death by stress and overwork, the charge of ‘coward’ often leveled at him is, in my few, manifestly false and undeserved.

Learn more about the great yet controversial Booker T. Washington here, in fact, in praise, and in blame:

The Awakening of the Negro – by Booker T. Washington for the Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1896

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) – by Lawson Bush for Blackpast.org

Booker T. Washington and the White Fear of Black Charisma – by Jeremy C. Young for the African American Intellectual History Society Blog

Booker T. Washington: American EducatorEncyclopædia Britannica

Pride and Compromise – Shelby Steele’s review of Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell

Speech to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia – September 18, 1895 – Booker T. Washington radio broadcast at American Radio Works

*I had the honor of interviewing Kenneth Morris last year; he’s an activist against modern slavery (wage slavery, sex trafficking, and other forms of coercive exploitation) and a direct descendant of both Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, each a preeminent figure in American civil rights history and each with a radically different approach to achieving equal civil status for their fellow black citizens. However, they had three things in common: an essential pragmatism combined with as much idealism, a deep love of their people, and an abiding trust that the universal human instinct for justice would win in the end.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today

On Authoritarianism And Civilization, by Neil Roberts

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

In 1890 the young W.E.B. Du Bois delivered the Harvard University Commencement address “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Du Bois focused on a central figure of nineteenth-century America as he prophesied the meanings of freedom, democracy, and what American life — or more accurately, civilization — would look like over the next hundred years and beyond for the white world, the black world, and other non-white populations that hitherto occupied spaces outside the epicenters of civil and political society.

Born in Kentucky, Jefferson Davis held the offices of U.S. Representative and Senator for the state of Mississippi and later Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Following Pierce’s failure at the 1856 Democratic National Convention to acquire Presidential re-nomination support from party delegates, Davis ran again, won, and went back to Congress as a Senator. Yet with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln and escalating distrust between South and North, Davis resigned his Senate post.

After ensuing Southern secession, Davis assumed the Presidency of the Confederate States of America, maintaining the position until the Civil War’s end. Davis had poor health much of adulthood and detractors internal to the Confederacy. While underestimated by peers and despised by several prominent Confederate politicians and generals, he nevertheless forged an obedient coalition and crafted a resolute model of governance and rule. Although Davis lived until the post-Reconstruction year before Du Bois’s speech, his thoughts and actions as Confederacy President provided core teachable moments.

Du Bois considers Davis a person whose self-conception is that of “a typical Teutonic hero” and whose notion of leadership personifies “the idea of the Strong Man.” By ‘Strong Man,’ Du Bois means a leader espousing “[i]ndividualism coupled with the rule of might.” The Strong Man, suffuse with strength, privileges the “I” and self-assertion over the “Thou.” The Strong Man bolsters civilization through “stalwart manhood and heroic character” on the one hand and “moral obtuseness and refined brutality” on the other. The Strong Man often relies on disgruntled and violent mobs, adherents who are, as Hannah Arendt observes, angry masses that feel excluded from previously accessed corridors of politics, believe their standing is society has evaporated compared to the prior generation, loathe heterogeneous society as is, and cry out for the homogeneous order the Strong Man promises. The Strong Man’s patriarchal idea of civilization is intimately tied to racial orders, and it is his vision of a future world that augurs the consolidation and regeneration of the white race above all other races.

Du Bois contrasts the Strong Man with the ‘Submissive Man,’ characterized by weakness, a commitment to truth, and desire to acquiesce to the Thou, the You, the part of personhood not obsessed with the image of the being reflected back in the mirror. Whereas the American Teuton, of which Davis is exemplary, is indicative of the Strong Man, the Negro is for Du Bois the archetypal Submissive Man Davis dismisses.

Ironically, the Strong Man and Submissive Man need one another, their diametrically opposed views notwithstanding. Otherwise, the polity they inhabit devolves into despotism or slavery, and not merely for those emboldened at any given time with the might and right of state.

Jefferson Davis, “the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free,” missed the inseparability of the I and the You. He refused to admit the ways we’re interconnected, in relation, despite our pluralistic and differential conceptions of the free life and in spite of attempts by agents of state and their lackeys to interfere, dominate, segregate, deport, and annihilate.

Davis’s Strong Man hubris spawned a vitriolic, angry, white nationalist, revolting mass. It also led to his downfall, the Confederacy’s decline, and American civilization as he conceived it, in large measure due not only to abolitionists but also the actions of fugitives and slave agents catalyzing its genesis. It didn’t, however, obliterate the wages of whiteness and political philosophy of white supremacy in the post-1865 polity. Du Bois documents this in The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, “The Souls of White Folk,” and, most notably, Black Reconstruction in America, as do scholars such as C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Nell Painter. This last point haunts us today.

Authority and authoritarianism undergird Du Bois’s prognostications. An agent with “authority” demands dogged obedience, compliance, and dispelling of ressentiment urges by the subjects of sovereign command. “Authoritarianism” is the structural macropolitical systemization of a type of statecraft designed by what Theodor Adorno and collaborators call an authoritarian personality. It is a hierarchical social, political, and economic order militating against egalitarianism. Moreover, as Arendt notes in “What Is Authority?” we shouldn’t confuse authoritarianism with tyranny, for “the tyrant rules in accordance with his own will and interest, whereas even the most draconian authoritarian government is bound by laws.”

Du Bois wrestles with Jefferson Davis’s legacy because Davis oversaw a confederation based on slavery and apparatuses of unfreedom enshrined in jurisprudence. Du Bois cautions against ambivalence, nihilism, and avoidance of the afterlife of chattel slavery, first since modes of enslavement sanctioned by law mutated and have been upheld at different junctures by authoritarian personalities, though not always in the public sphere by the prime executive. An amplification of these chilling effects occurs when the entity wielding authority — whose public beliefs defend racism, sexism, xenophobia, chauvinism, and rabid masculinity — is Commander-in-Chief. Second, struggle, resistance, and abolitionist challenges to authority and authoritarianism are as much a tradition as the tradition their actions seek to dislodge. Never forget that.

Our current moment is unprecedented. Yet past lessons offer signposts for future judgments and decision-making. President-elect Donald Trump entered campaign 2016 a noted businessman, consummate reality TV performer, and political chameleon. In the process of winning the Republican primary and shockingly defeating Hillary Clinton, Trump clarified certain issues and left many policy positions open-ended.

What’s incontrovertible is Trump’s authoritarian personality. Only time will tell what type of authoritarian President Trump will be, Jefferson Davis reincarnated or otherwise. And if his senior administrative appointments are any indication, particularly the ghastly selection of avowed white nationalist Stephen Bannon as top White House advisor, then we’d be foolish to assume Trump’s stated public beliefs and campaign promises are one big bluff. Parrhesia is hard to digest.

We have a choice in the Age of Trump: ignore history and our intrinsic abilities for action, thereby reifying the authoritarian order Trump very much plans to implement. *Or* protest. Petition. Resist authoritarianism and its mob enforcers. Organize. Unlock our political imaginations. Believe firmly our actions can match our convictions.

‘American Democracy’ is an unrealized and perhaps unrealizable Platonic ideal, but democracy in America, in the hemisphere, and in the globe, measured by nodes of progress, are attainable. Progress, as with regress, comes in stages. And like freedom, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, the meaning of progress and attendant strivings for it begin with acknowledging a foundational phenomenon: perpetual flight.

Flight operates betwixt, between, and beyond the options of Strong Man and Submissive Man. “Human” progress, a consequence of ongoing marronage, beckons us.

This piece was published in the African American Intellectual Historical Society Blog on December 4th, 2016

~ Neil Roberts is an associate professor of Africana Studies and a faculty affiliate in Political Science at Williams College. He is author of the award-winning Freedom as Marronage (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the collaborative work Journeys in Caribbean Thought (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016). Roberts is presently completing A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass for The University Press of Kentucky, and he is President-Elect of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Follow him on Twitter @neildsroberts. (Bio Credit: AAIHS Blog)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist

Ken Morris, image credit Kenneth Morris.jpgListen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

I’m honored and excited to introduce my next guest for Ordinary Philosophy’s 58th podcast episode, Ken Morris.

Ken Morris is closely linked to Frederick Douglass, the subject of my most recent history of ideas travel series, and carries on his legacy by working in a noble and very important cause, anti-slavery activism. He has an incredible family history and personal life story and array of accomplishments which you’ll be sure to find as impressive and fascinating as I do, but I’ll stop here and let him tell you all about it….

For more about Ken Morris and his work, please visit:

The Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives website
Bio: http://fdfi.org/ken
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FrederickDouglassFamilyInitiatives/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/kmorrisjr
and Picturing Frederick Douglass, to which Mr. Morris contributed and sales of which benefit the FDFI: http://fdfi.org/book

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson, Jan 16th 2016

I’m ple6759b-amy2band2bjeffersonased to announce that the 33rd episode of the podcast is a super special one, as it’s Ordinary Philosophy’s first interview, and my distinguished guest is Clay Jenkinson, humanities scholar, author, and creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour radio show and blog.

I’m a long time listener of the show; in fact, I believe I’ve listened to just about every single episode, many of them more than once, and relied on Clay’s work to inform my own, especially in the two Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series I did following the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson.

I highly, highly recommend you give the Thomas Jefferson Hour a listen, you can find it at www.jeffersonhour.com, along with many other resources on the life and ideas of Jefferson, and Clay’s other work in the humanities.

You can find the accounts of my two series on Jefferson, as part of the Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series, here and here.

I interview Clay here in character as Thomas Jefferson, as he does on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, discussing various issues as Jefferson himself might have viewed them, informed by Clay’s extensive scholarship on his life and expressed views.

I hope you enjoy our discussion as much as I did!

You can also subscribe to the Ordinary Philosophy and Thomas Jefferson Hour podcasts on iTunes.

*Thank you, Shane and David, for your help and technical support

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!