“The more we talked with the students who were then coming to us from several parts of the state, the more we found that the chief ambition among a large proportion of them was to get an education so that they would not have to work any longer with their hands. This is illustrated by a story told of a coloured man in Alabama, who, one hot day in July, while he was at work in a cotton field, suddenly stopped, and, looking toward the skies, said: ‘O Lawd, de cotton am so grassy, de work am so hard, and the sun am so hot dat I b’lieve did darky am called to preach!” -Booker T. Washington “Up From Slavery” (1901)
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
In hindsight, it would be all too easy to take issue with Mr. Washington’s late 19th and early 20th century preoccupation with working “with the hands,” or his use of dialect to illustrate a noteworthy principle; however, if we were to suspend judgment we might find an important ideal revolving around notions of “calling,” “vocation,” and the requisite work required for success within a designated “field.” Though stated broadly and not ascribed to the entirety of the ministerial profession, Mr. Washington’s statement that some students elected not to continue working “with their hands”-opting instead to pursue ministry-has profound reverberations for the present. To be sure, many students elected to change their pursuit of one profession to another for a variety of reasons-including seeking congruence with their latent talent, skills and desires. All the same, there are many instances where a student may have not simply had the wherewithal to continue his or her labors due to the proverbial “price of the ticket.” And this is clearly Mr. Washington’s concern in this passage. One simply cannot expect to achieve enduring success in any endeavor or profession without first putting in the requisite work that is often designed to harden and prepare for subsequent experiences in the profession. For demonstrating a proven ability to overcome difficult circumstances-and preferably more than one-is infinitely more impactful than merely communicating the stories of others who have overcome.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University