"No" to cultural Ebonics

Booker T. Washington a model for racial reconciliation

Issue: "Fighting Cultural Ebonics," Feb. 1, 1997

Racial reconciliation, as promise keepers and others have noted, should be high on the agenda for American Christians. But the drive for reconciliation, like many other things, can be based on God's wisdom or modern man's.

That drive for reconciliation can emphasize the importance for all people of marriage, work, and worship. It can help us to identify each other not by the color of our skin but by the content of our belief. Or, it can lure those with guilt feelings to speak a form of cultural Ebonics by supporting programs of reverse racism and governmental aggrandizement.

Which way will we go? We learn what to do primarily from reading the Bible, but a study of history provides supportive detail. This issue's cover date, February 1, is the first day of Black History Month, and it's important for Christians to turn this month not into a celebration of racial differences but a remembrance of the centrality of biblical values to black progress from the 1860s through the 1960s.

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There is one person whose life and beliefs show that centrality particularly well: Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Sadly, the man who was a role model for two generations of American blacks is often ignored these days, since his Christian values are not considered politically correct within most university departments of African-American Studies. (The perspectives from such programs trickle down to elementary schools.)

Christians cannot afford to ignore Booker T. Washington, because his teaching holds the key to true reconciliation. This subject is so important that I am doing this month something I've never before done as editor: devoting not just this column but the next three Remarkable Providences columns to telling the Washington story and the relevance of his ideas to our opportunities for reconciliation.

Next week I'll examine Mr. Washington's theology, but some biographical details provide useful context. Booker (no last name at first) was born into slavery in 1856 and freed when the war ended, only to find himself at age nine working in the salt mines of West Virginia. This side-effect of liberty taught young Booker that abstract rights did not preserve him from a shift in the mines that began at 4 a.m. The climb up from slavery, whether legal or economic, required labor, integrity, faith, and thrift.

Providentially, family members helped. Just as many inner-city parents work extra shifts to pay tuition to a Christian school, so Booker's mother and other poor parents hired a literate black ex-soldier to teach their children how to read. Booker studied as soon as he got off work each day, and he was ready in 1872 (with a little traveling money from his brother) to walk most of the way to Hampton Institute, a new high school for blacks 500 miles away.

Booker, arriving at the institute in clothes he had worn for weeks, received an unusual admissions test: The head teacher told the unlikely looking scholar to sweep and dust an adjoining classroom. He swept it three times, dusted every inch of wood in the room four times, and then-holding his breath-asked for an inspection. The teacher examined every corner, rubbed her handkerchief on the table and benches, found everything spotless, and said, "I guess you will do to enter this institution."

Mr. Washington later remarked that those words made him "one of the happiest souls on earth. The sweeping of that room was my college examination, and never did any youth pass an examination for entrance into Harvard or Yale that gave him more genuine satisfaction." He then worked his way through Hampton by doing janitorial work, and eventually became a teacher there.

After nine years of work and study, the 25-year-old Washington was ready to set out on his own in 1881, and he was invited to head a new school in Alabama, Tuskegee Institute. Visiting nearby families, he encountered one young black man who had been to high school and was sitting in greasy clothes amid garbage in his shack, studying a French grammar rather than working the fields. Mr. Washington's initial program of study was different: He lined up the students and led them in a "chopping bee," during which he and they cleared the undergrowth, trees, and shrubs off land that was then to be used for planting food crops.

Some of the students protested, arguing that they had come for an education so they would not have to do manual labor, "slave work." Mr. Washington, however, swung his ax vigorously, both showing and telling that "there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem." Dignity, he taught, comes from glorifying God in whatever capacity he has placed us, then working to improve our circumstances. Both whites and blacks can learn from him.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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