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‘Miserable, desolate, and discouraging’ beginnings

Booker T. Washington begins the account of his life by telling us that he ‘was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia’. He confesses his uncertainty and lack of knowledge about the details of his birth and ancestry. He used to live in a log cabin in the slave quarters on the plantation. His family comprised his mother (Jane), brother (John) and sister (Amanda). He does not know much about his father, except that he was a white man from a nearby plantation.

Life as a slave boy

Washington describes the less-than-satisfactory living conditions of the poorly built log cabin. Life in the little cabin was trying, during both winters and summers. He and his siblings would sleep on bundles of rags laid upon the dirt floor of the cabin. He recalls with fondness the sweet potatoes stored in the ‘potato-hole’ – a hollowed out section of the earthen floor inside the cabin.

The author tells us how, as a slave boy, he would often carry water to the men in the fields or take corn to the mill for it to be ground. This second work he ‘dreaded’ because it would more often than not cause him to be late for the journey home. Slaves did not have schools, so all the ‘schooling’ he got was carrying books for one of his mistresses up to the schoolhouse door.

Further on, he talks about his meals – sometimes ‘a piece of bread’ and ‘a scrap of meat’, at others ‘a cup of milk’ or ‘some potatoes’. They were usually eaten out of a skillet or a pot, or a tin plate, or even, bare hands. He also describes the inconvenient and noisy wooden shoes, and the rough and torturous flax shirts that he wore in those days. 

A fervent prayer and a growing hope

The author says that the ‘ignorant’ slaves throughout the South kept abreast of the ‘National questions agitating the country’ through what was termed as the ‘grapevine telegraph’. They knew that the primal issue in the Civil War – between the Federal armies of the North and the Confederate forces of the South – was that of slavery. They were certain that victory of the Northern armies would ensure their freedom. The author describes how his first knowledge of the situation confronting them was when he was awakened by his mother’s prayer for the victory of the Federal forces.

The prolonging of the war affected the supply of things like tea, coffee and sugar, which the whites were accustomed to use. Such articles were difficult to procure and impossible to grow on the plantation. Thus, they had to resort to cheap and local replacements for these things.  

The double-edged sword of slavery

Washington says that the Negroes on the Southern plantations did not cherish any bitterness towards the white people. The Southern whites were fighting to keep the Negroes in bondage forever. Yet, the slaves displayed loyalty, sympathy and generosity towards their masters and mistresses, both during the Civil War and years after it. The author narrates several incidents to prove this point.

Slavery, according to Washington, was an institution that affected America as a whole. While he does not deny the cruelties and moral wrongs his race suffered, he does believe that the institution of slavery was also positive in some respects. The slave system looked upon all forms of labour as undignified, hence unsuitable for the whites. This, according to the author, made the blacks self-reliant over time. The whites, on the other hand, grew less so, becoming victims of slavery themselves.

Emancipation and after

Washington narrates the events immediately after the war. There was much rejoicing among the slaves, who knew that the result of the war was in their favour. Yet, amidst the display of happiness, they did not forget their loyalty and duty. They guarded the valuables belonging to their masters and mistresses from being taken away by the ‘Yankee’ invaders.

The author describes the day when all the blacks on the plantation were asked to gather at the master’s ‘big house’. There, an officer of the United States read out the Emancipation Proclamation and declared that all of them were free souls from thenceforth. The initial joy and thanksgiving soon gave way to fears and apprehensions, especially among the elderly blacks. Freedom had been thrust upon them quite suddenly and very late in their lives. They found it feasible to continue in the employment of their old masters.


A question of identity and the taste of freedom

Washington writes about the initial reactions of the blacks to the abolition of slavery. One of these was to discontinue with their surnames. Their surnames thus far had only been in place to identify them with respect to their white masters. They took up new surnames, some even including an extra initial and calling it their ‘entitles’.

The second w…

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