Herman Cain Is No Booker T. Washington



The history teacher in our family recently completed a tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. complex on Auburn Avenue. Throughout the King memorial site, she noticed, a pantheon of civil rights greats throughout U.S. history are lauded -- with one glaring omission. 

 Booker T. Washington, the first great leader of African-Americans in the post-slavery era, who emphasized economic self-reliance above all else -- including the immediate pursuit of social equality -- is a nonperson at the King Center. He is an invisible man. 

Some might consider the historical slight to be inconsequential. But it goes some distance toward explaining the hurdle that still faces Herman Cain and his -- so far -- surprisingly successful quest for the GOP presidential nomination.

Jim Galloway, the author of the column, doesn't really bother to explain what, specifically, Washington can tell us about Cain. It's implied that Cain has no black following because African-Americans have turned away from the self-help model of leadership, and more toward a protest model.

I can't speak for the King Center, but in the black pantheon, Booker T. Washington is anything but an invisible man. There are scores of schools named after him across the country, and parks stretching from Charlottesville to Harlem. There are statues of him in Cleveland, Franklin, Virginia and Tuskegee, Alabama where he founded an HBCU.

The black poet Dudley Randall, wrote a really bad poem about his debate with W.E.B. Du Bois which black kids, like me, were forced to recite at the point of the bayonet. My middle school divided groups of classes into teams, each named after a black hero. Only Booker T Washington got two teams (The "Booker T" team and the "Washington" team.)

Moreover, the ideas advanced by Washington, surely contested in his time, weren't exactly heretical in the history of black education. No less than Frederick Douglass once argued against sending black freedman to learn "Greek and Latin" in favor of more practical vocations:

Accustomed as we have been to the rougher and harder modes of living, and of gaining a livelihood, we cannot and we ought not to hope that in a single leap from our low condition, we can reach that of Ministers, Lawyers, Doctors, Editors, Merchants, etc. These will doubtless be attained by us; but this will only be when we have patiently and laboriously, and I may add successfully, mastered and passed through the intermediate gradations of agriculture and the mechanic arts. Besides, there are (and perhaps this is a better reason for my view of the case) numerous institutions of learning in this country, already thrown open to colored youth...

We must become mechanics; we must build as well as live in houses; we must make as well as use furniture; we must construct bridges as well as pass over them, before we can properly live or be respected by our fellow men. We need mechanics as well as ministers. We need workers in iron, clay, and leather. We have orators, authors, and other professional men, but these reach only a certain class, and get respect for our race in certain select circles. To live here as we ought we must fasten ourselves to our countrymen through their every-day, cardinal wants. We must not only be able to black boots, but to make them. At present we are, in the northern States, unknown as mechanics. We give no proof of genius or skill at the county, State, or national fairs. We are unknown at any of the great exhibitions of the industry of our fellow-citizens, and being unknown, we are unconsidered.

Sound familiar? Douglass was, at that point, attempting to raise funds for a vocational school, a dream which Washington would fulfill.

Black Republicans like to reconcile the fact that they belong to the party of Obama Waffles and birtherism by citing Booker T. Washington as a model. But whereas these Republicans tend to draw their support almost entirely from whites, Booker T. Washington was the dominant black leader of his time. Washington, much like the dominant black leader of our time, was biracial. He built a black institution, that educated black people, and took his message to black audience. In short, Washington was a legitimate organic black conservative, rooted in the black community, propelled forth by his relationship to that community.

The actual roots of Herman Cain's "brainwashed" critique lay not in the words of Washington, but in another political tradition--the tradition of telling white populists what they like to hear:

I am firmly rooted in the conviction that negroism, as exemplified in the American type, is an attitude of mental density, a kind of spiritual sensuousness...

The negro not only lacks a fair degree of intuitive knowledge, but so dense is his understanding that he blindly follows weird fantasies and hideous phantoms. So great is his predilection in this direction, that he appears incapable of understanding the difference between evidence and assertion, proof and surmise. These facts warrant the conclusion that negro intelligence is both superficial and delusive, because, though such people excel in recollections of a concrete object, their retentive memories do not enable them to make any valuable deductions, either from the object itself, or from their familiar experience with it.

That's William Hannibal Thomas a black man, who in his time, had seen his share of racism and sacrifice. But Smith ultimately decided to side with the white populists of his time, as opposed to against them. Smith enjoyed about as much black support then, as Herman Cain enjoys now. He found no quarter in the black community--least of all from one Booker T, Washington-- "It is sad to think of a man without a country," Washington wrote of Smith. "It is even sadder to think of a man without a race."

Within black leadership, the span of Washington's political progeny is rather stunning. It includes black nationalists like Marcus Garvey (who cited Washington as influence) and Malcolm X (whose parents were Garveyites.) It includes Bill Cosby and Barack Obama (as I argued here.) And it includes my Black Panther father, who used to force-feed us doses of Up From Slavery. There is, as there always has been, a large number of black conservatives. That they largely happen to vote Democratic says more about the GOP then it does about "brainwashing."

The notion of self-help and economic power is deeply seductive and has always had strong appeal in the black community. It's comforting to think that black people abandoned it because they were seduced by wild-eyed activists. In fact no one did more to discredit Washington's ideas than the white populists who answered his call for conciliation with the worst wave of home-grown terror in American history, and the government officials who, at every level, either looked away or joined in. 

And yet when you look at the debates over how Obama addresses black audiences, it's clear that Washington endures.