Up from History

It is hard to think of a historical figure more in need of biographical rescue.

The idea of “biographical rescue” articulated by Shelby Steele in his New York Times review of Robert J. Norrell‘s 2009 biography, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, requires, as its complement, a “definitive” biography from which Washington, in this instance, needs to be rescued.

That “definitive biography” is Louis R. Harlan’s two-volume account of Washington’s life, the first volume of which, Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856 – 1901, no longer seems to be readily available; the second volume, Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915, won the Pulitzer Prize on publication in 1984.

Harlan characterized him as the “wizard of Tuskegee” after the “wizard of Oz,” a man in hiding, an “infinitely duplicitous” power broker who, in becoming for a time the leader of his race, had “vanished” behind a mask.The New York Times’ review of Harlan’s second volume goes so far as to suggest that, under Washington’s leadership, Tuskegee (today a liberal arts university) offered its students a harsher life than an “antebellum plantation” did slaves. As must already be clear, this biographical portrait is not a flattering one.

If Harlan’s is the “definitive” work than Norrell’s far more sympathetic biography must be “revisionist,” a term that turns out to have no definite meaning in itself and merely acts a placeholder for the eventual verdict of scholars and society on the persuasiveness of the new work.

The final chapter of Norrell’s book is probably the best argument for reading his work along with (or in my case, instead of, mea culpa) Harlan’s earlier account. Harlan, who died in 1984, was not only a historian but “a civil rights activist at a time when relatively few Southern whites marched shoulder to shoulder with their black brethren,” according to his NYT obituary. In other words, as the obituary explicitly points out, he has ‘street cred.’ That said, he is now a compelling historical figure in his own right.

It’s worth noting that Harlan began writing about Washington at a time when Washington’s “accommodationist” approach had been entirely subsumed by faith in the power of protest, prompting Norrell to suggest that the influence of Harlan’s own present day obscured the realities of Washington’s:

By the mid-1960s, Washington was understood to have been the enemy of activism, the Uncle Tom who delayed the day of freedom. From then on, the present-mindedness of historians writing about race went mostly unquestioned.

The study of history itself is intended to safeguard against any argument about the past going “unquestioned,” and Norrell’s biography of so complex and divisive a figure as Washington is unlikely, in itself, to have the last word.

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