The founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University, Booker T. Washington, was a man of his day and time–a time that was marked by slavery, racial divisions and its subsequent effects. Mr. Washington’s naming of his autobiography, Up from Slavery, speaks to these conditions and the way in which it shaped both himself and all those who lived within this difficult period in American history. All the same, Mr. Washington makes a pointed observation that others have made before. However, he manages to wring a poignant lesson from it:”…out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence…” Earlier in the same chapter of his autobiography, he makes the statement that is perhaps his most quoted aphorism: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” And the connection between the kind of success gained from overcoming obstacles and the “strength” and “confidence” one gains by doing so is a profound one if one is able to grasp it. All suffering, but particularly, willful suffering, produces the kind of “strength” that is very difficult to imagine one might gain especially when one begins an arduous, “hard and unusual struggle” with no clear and discernible reward in sight. Yet, what Mr. Washington tries to impress upon his readers is a very real sense that despite the injustice and apparent suffering that persons from all walks of life are inevitably confronted with-if one learns how to suffer, one will learn how to succeed. Habits of internal fortitude, patience, perseverance, determination amongst a host of other attributes that one develops-if, and only if, one endures suffering-are the very characteristics that in turn are both necessary for and inherently marks persons of success. Whether one is “compelled to pass” through such suffering or willingly undergoes it, the end result is one that serves the sufferer immeasurably more than the circumstances or society that cause such suffering.
“With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence…”-Booker T. Washington Up from Slavery (1901)
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University