Monday, August 13, 2018

Social Responsibility and Tuskegee

No one really wants to hear the history of a thing, the background of a person, the etymology of a notion. Let’s face it: what we really crave is the unknown and if there is a little mystery, a little dirt, a hint of scandal, well… most of us are front and center ears and eyes wide open and attentive.

What we know is that Tuskegee was founded in 1881 by George Campbell, a former slave owner, and Lewis Adams, a former slave and a southern community leader as a free man. In a single room cabin, like many schools of that day Tuskegee began small. Booker T Washington was brought on as the first head of school and as a professor. The school, one of only a few institutions of higher education for colored people, was authorized under House Bill 165.  Under Washington’s leadership from 1881 until his death in 1915, the school was able to gain funding and grow to be a large and beautifully crafted campus.

 Ralph Ellison was a student at Tuskegee University and while the college is not named in his novel Invisible Man, it is assumed that the college attended by the protagonist was indeed modeled after Tuskegee. Likewise, Mr. Bledsoe, the head of the school in the text, is said to be a written depiction of Booker T. Washington himself. Mr. Bledsoe was not “cruel,” but his intentions were selfish in many ways. This too has been said of many of Washington’s practices.  In the prologue of the text, after the battle royal, as the protagonist was giving his valedictorian address for the esteemed white men of the community, we can hear the drumming of Mr. Washington’s tutelage in the scene. There was a moment when, after swallowing blood and while being asked many times to repeat the phrase “social responsibility” from his speech, the protagonist accidentally stated “social equality” and the room was none too amused. While social equality at the time depicted in the novel, the 1930’s or 1940’s, was discussed in hushed tones among many blacks, Booker T. Washington believed that the foundations of economic equality were more important than social equality and it was clear that Ellison was making his understanding of how others viewed this point  known within his writing.

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