Memorable Images

Ron Paul Curriculum, English 1, Lesson 60

Writing assignment: 500 words on this topic: “What are some memorable images from the narrative? Why are they memorable?”

In 1901, Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery was published. Washington was a very skilled writer, having learned at the Hampton Institute for three years. He included many memorable events, but what I took away most from it was the difference between the average person’s monetary choices, and Washington’s wise philosophy.

The image that surprised me the most from Washington’s narrative was the total irresponsibility of people. Washington described young men in Washington DC, who earned $4 per week, spending half of it or more to rent a buggy on a Sunday afternoon, trying to appear wealthy. On the contrary, it left them with 28 cents a day for them to pay for food, water, and shelter. Washington’s next examples were many families of ex-slaves living in very poor conditions, who Washington indirectly suggests were living similarly to how they lived pre-1865. These people, rather than use their newly-earned money to improve their standards of living, bought things that were either broken, or they couldn’t use. Such things included showy, $12 clocks that didn’t tell time properly, disused sewing machines, and in one case an organ that was costing the family $60 per month. The same family with the organ only had one fork, opting to eat with their hands or directly from the cooking skillet. Prior to reading about this, I was well aware of peoples’ tendencies to make bad decisions. Take Apple’s continued existence as an example. What astounded me, however, was that these people are worse than I thought anyone could be… I can’t imagine someone who doesn’t realize that if you spend two pieces of green paper, you only have two pieces left, or someone who thinks that an organ nobody knows how to play is worth $60 a month. (Today, that’s like buying a car every year).

In stark contrast is Washington’s own fiscal responsibility. He had a (healthy) fear of debt, and disapproved of using it to buy unproductive things. When he was very young, just out of slavery, his friends all had hats, and he felt uncomfortable that he didn’t. Rather than borrowing money from the bank to buy one, his mom made one out of old clothes. This “homespun” hat made Booker feel very proud of his mom, despite the teases of the other kids. He later noted that several of them “have ended their careers in a penitentiary, while others are not able now to buy any kind of hat.”

When Washington did go into debt, it was for good reason. The Tuskegee Institute, newly formed and without money, was operating in an old leaky church and shanty. In three months, an abandoned plantation went up for sale for $500: $250 up front, and the other $250 up to a year later. This was considered inexpensive, and after looking over it thoroughly, Washington determined that it was an ideal place for the school. They didn’t have the money, except for $2000 a year that could only be used for salaries. Washington described what he did to obtain the money “In the midst of the difficulty I summoned a great deal of courage and wrote to my friend General J.F.B. Marshall, the Treasurer of the Hampton Institute, putting the situation before him and beseeching him to lend me the two hundred and fifty dollars on my own personal responsibility.” Washington wasn’t going to blame anyone else for a failure to repay the loan. The response, a couple days later, said that General Marshall did not have the authority to lend Hampton’s money, “but that he would gladly lend me the amount needed from his own personal funds.” That was a lot of trust to put into him, but it worked. Through donations and other means, Washington and his students paid back General Marshall in three months, and they paid the rest of the money in two more. This and other loans, which were sometimes only payable on the very last day, made Washington very anxious that they wouldn’t make it.

Booker T. Washington’s autobiography is most memorable to me for it’s contrast between the financial choices most former slaves could have made versus what they did. He points out that many people living in poor conditions, even pre-emancipation conditions, were spending lots of money on things that they couldn’t use. This money could have been going towards quality-of-life products. They were making their financial positions even worse and getting nothing out of it. Washington demonstrates that they didn’t have to live that way, and describes his fear of debt. He realized that it was a dangerous burden that too many people were using to buy unproductive, even useless things.

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