Reclaiming Booker T. Washington

What occupies professors when they are on summer vacation? I imagine some may think we do nothing. Those would not be the professors I know; we stay busy.

For instance, I’ve been working diligently on a new upper-level history course for the fall semester: American history from 1877-1917. For me, though, that’s hardly “work”—it’s an enjoyable experience putting my thoughts together and giving them life through my PowerPoint presentations.

I’m the type of historian who concentrates quite a bit on the people of an era, less so on statistics, graphs, etc. My primary interest is character and how that affects the cause-and-effect flow of history.

I also have a tendency to provide alternative views on those people, views that don’t fit into the prevailing interpretations. Take Booker T. Washington as an example. One of the books I’m using in the course is Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery. It’s a heartfelt account of one man who overcame tremendous disadvantages and made a positive impact on many lives through the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute.

Today, Washington is often criticized as an “Uncle Tom.” First of all, that’s a slam on the fictional Uncle Tom as presented by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel. Tom was a Christ-like man to be admired.

Washington also should be admired for his tenacity, his desire to help ex-slaves, and his Christian character.

I like to include key quotes from significant historical figures. Washington is very quotable.

Here’s one that can be applied to him personally:

Washington’s selflessness shines in these two comments:

Washington knew, from personal experience, what it meant to be discriminated against, but he also received tremendous support from many in the white community throughout his life. He lived by this motto:

That’s the perspective we need in our cultural and political wars today. It came from Washington’s Christian faith.

Here’s a very short quote, but it says a lot:

It’s amazing how just three words can communicate a vital truth.

Booker T. Washington’s life is a testimony to character, and it should be an inspiration for the current generation.

I like teaching history; it has a lot to offer us if one approaches it with a right attitude, and not with the proverbial chip on the shoulder.

History should never be used to advance a preconceived agenda, but it can be used to remind us of the significance of individuals and the impact they can make. Booker T. Washington is one such individual.

Interpreting American History

My time off from blogging during June was most welcome. It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing this; I certainly do. A break, though, can be helpful at times. As I contemplated how to proceed with this blog, I realized that even though, as a historian, I have delved time and again into American history on this site, I haven’t done so systematically.

Here’s what I propose to do.

I want to go through American history from the beginning and offer my take/interpretation of people and events. This will be a long process because there’s so much to comment on. I propose to intersperse these interpretations of our past with commentary on current events, as I’ve always done, and as developments require. So for those of you who are more inclined to read about the present than the past, be assured that won’t change. However, I will have more posts dealing with the past than I’ve had previously. Perhaps I’ll do a couple per week, as events allow.

What I hope to do with these historical posts is provide a basic Christian framework for understanding our history. As regular readers know, I consider myself a conservative who believes the roots of our nation do lie within the Christian faith, to a great extent. I will differ, though, with some conservative Christians on certain points. For instance, I cannot, with integrity, try to make non-Christians into Christians, nor can I wink at those aspects of our history that violated Biblical principles. I must be honest with my sources. As a practicing historian who has read extensively on American history, I believe I have greater depth of knowledge than those who dabble in it, yet I seek to remain humble about my knowledge, always staying open to new information.

I can be wrong.

American History SymbolsYet I want to share the conclusions I’ve reached on a wide variety of subjects. Did Jamestown begin with a Christian worldview? Were the Pilgrims and Puritans people to be admired unconditionally? How great was the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century? Was there a proper Biblical basis for the American Revolution and how Christian was it? Were key individuals in our Founding grounded Biblically? Is the Constitution a document with Biblical origins? What about western expansion? Was it carried out in a Christian manner? How do we deal with the treatment of the natives? Naturally, I’ll have to tackle slavery and the Civil War. How should a dedicated Christian understand those?

After the Civil War, did the rise of big business push us in a positive direction as a nation or negative? Was immigration beneficial or harmful? How did progressivism affect our view of government? Along the way, I’ll need to offer my evaluation of key presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Wilson, Coolidge, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and others. Which ones remained tied to our Founding principles and which did not? What about their policies? Cultural changes are just as important as political programs. In fact, the culture may have more of an impact on the policies than vice versa.

I was planning to do this anyway, yet I received another confirmation of the importance of this series when I watched the new Dinesh D’Souza film America on July 4. It was an appropriate day to view it.

America Poster

I loved virtually everything about this documentary—the visuals, the quick pace, the thoughtfulness, the music. What’s more, D’Souza’s approach was excellent. He allowed detractors of America to have their say and proclaim their critiques first; then he answered those critiques most effectively in the last half of the film.

I will do the same, in one sense. I will tell you what others think about these various people and events in American history, then give my response. I hope to be fair; I hope to make you think. I will start tomorrow.