“I have been a slave once in my life-a slave in body. But I long since resolved that no inducement and no influence would ever make me a slave in soul, in my love for humanity, and in my search for truth.” -Booker T. Washington, (1907) The Negro in the South
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
In a little-known, yet most noteworthy moment in the history of both American and African American literary history, Booker T. Washington jointly published the book, The Negro In the South (1907) containing 2 essays from himself and 2 other essays from none other than W.E.B. Du Bois. (And this was not their first co-publication. This would be the second book containing these two stalwarts in American and African American educational and intellectual history.) All the same, in the first of Mr. Washington’s two essays, he makes the distinction between being a “slave in body” versus being a “slave in soul.” Note the following concerning the remarks of the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University: He made a strategic, calculated set of decisions to ensure that his outward circumstance would not determine his future circumstances. (And these decisions revolved around a “love for humanity” and a “search for truth”, which will always place the “lover” and “seeker” of such beyond the pale of those whose pursuits are self-interested and selfish.) First, a lover of humanity is unafraid to come to learn to love others because he or she has first come to love himself. One can hardly come to learn others if one does not possess a deep love for one’s self, and this includes learning to love both the learned and the ignorant. For a man or woman who ascended to leadership, as Mr. Washington had done, not only encountered both but had been both during his long ascent Up From Slavery. Second, the seeker of truth seeks after that which is right without regard to where this truth leads. Leo Tolstoy eloquently suggests the following about such a principle: “If you wish to know the truth, first of all free yourself from all considerations of self-interest.” Whether the truth Mr. Washington discovered was for the benefit or detriment to himself or not-“integrity” is the single greatest 9-letter word-this pursuit is without question what leads to 34 years of ongoing, consistent and enduring success for Tuskegee (Institute) University. For unbroken, undivided and unwavering consistency and wholeness is perhaps the closest description of both “truth” and Mr. Washington’s presidency that has served and will continue to serve generations of “humanity.” And this is why we celebrate his accomplishments in this the centennial year of his passing (1915-2015).
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.
7th President, Tuskegee University