Uncle Tom or New Negro? African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and "Up From Slavery" 100 Years Later Edited by Rebecca Carroll Harlem Moon/Broadway Books, January 2006 $15.95, ISBN 0-767-91955-6
The Education of Booker T. Washington: American Democracy and the Idea of Race Relations by Michael Rudolph West Columbia University Press, February 2006 $29.50, ISBN 0-231-13048-1
Black Americans have forever labored under binary oppositions: slavery vs. freedom, equality vs. inequality, accommodation vs. agitation. Life has always been, well, black or white. It is little wonder then that similar tensions exist when we attempt to determine who will speak for blacks: Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bill Cosby or the Reverend A1 Sharpton. Two recent books reflect on the legacy of Booker T. Washington and, in the process, offer two more dichotomies for Americans to ponder: Uncle Tom vs. New Negro and "racist proscription" vs. democracy. Far more than simple judgment of Booker T., both books encourage a reconsideration of what it means to be black in America.
Uncle Tom or New Negro? is a reprint of Up From Slavery preceded by 20 interviews in which journalist Rebecca Carroll asked black academic, business and cultural leaders about the legacy of Booker T. Washington. These perceptions vary, from the sympathetic and supportive (most people have read only Up From Slavery, resulting in a "skewed view" of Washington's larger body of ideas) to the scathingly critical ("Basically, he was the overseer of the plantation") to everything in between.
The range of observations, and the easily digested colloquial style in which they are presented, reflects both the intent of the project and the multifarious list of participants, including Ronald Waiters, Elizabeth Gardner Hines, Julianne Malveaux, Gregory S. Bell, John Bryant and many other notables. There were two particularly noteworthy interviews. One, with the award-winning essayist Debra Dickerson, asks how blacks might lay claim to Washington's success without appearing to condone his accommodationism. The other, with the filmmaker Avon Kirkland, insisted that "any leader who does not defend the basic humanity of his people is betraying his people" Since several interviewees advocated "historical context" and a broader...