Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Entitles: Booker T. Washington's Signs of Play

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Entitles: Booker T. Washington's Signs of Play

Article excerpt

"The first thing that came in my way of book learning was the number 18," wrote Booker T. Washington in his memoir Up From Slavery. He goes on to explain that in the darkness of the salt furnaces where he and his stepfather worked, the boss would go around and mark each barrel with an identifying number. Washington's stepfather was always "18," and Washington recalls that "after a while I got to the point where I could make that figure, though I knew nothing about any other figures or letters" (18). While Washington spends much time extolling his own hard work in mastering book learning in his later years, the ambiguity of his initial phrasing is telling--that something "came in my way." The phrasing opens up the interpretative possibilities that this essay seeks to explore--by the way of what things did he encounter book learning? And, equally, how were those same things obstacles? A complex exchange of signification and power underlying the ambiguity of this phrase can be seen in Washington's memoir, especially in the scenes that illustrate the mastery of literacy. These scenes use troubled terms quite unlike the traditional equation of literacy and freedom common to antebellum slave narratives. Indeed, Washington's sense of"play" with the codes and sign systems used by white society seems barely congruent with the portrait of the literal-minded and doggedly pragmatic leader he came to be known as in his adulthood. (1)

"Play" is significant here for a number of reasons, but one aspect involves Washington's composition of Up From Slavery itself. After reviewing the first few pages of what was to become Up From Slavery, Lyman Abbott, editor of The Outlook magazine (which was planning to publish the series of recollections), asked Washington specifically if he could add anecdotes about his play as a child: "I, for example, would like very much to know more of your boyhood life in the slave days, if it were possible for you to give it. Did you have any sports, any education, any work to do before emancipation?" (Abbott 159) With a polite but crushing assessment of the profound disconnect between the genteel northern literary professional and a man born into enslavement and desperate poverty, Booker T. Washington responded in Up From Slavery with the following:

   I was asked not long ago to tell something about the sports and
   pastimes that I engaged in during my youth. Until that question
   was asked it had never occurred to me that there was no period of
   my life that was devoted to play. From the time that I can remember
   anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied in
   some kind of labour; though I think I would now be a more useful
   man if I had had time for sports. (9)

Washington's sense of play was redefined in his own terms. As he went on to explain, instead of "play," his childhood was spent in terrified service, often delivering corn to a local mill, all the while fearing both the dark and lonely road and punishment for a late return. (2) "Play" wasn't merely absent; it was replaced with labor and terror. Washington's notion of play was inflected by a sense that while meanings and words might be culturally translatable, they weren't necessarily fixed. In retrospect, Washington seems uncertain of how precisely such cultural translations ever came about. In this essay I consider Washington's often reluctant, but sometimes wry and knowing, dismantling of various meaning systems to demonstrate how he was simultaneously constructed and sited by language.

Washington, with his famously stolid persona, nonetheless recognized the fragmented nature of the signifier. In his writings he continually reports or imagines disruptions of language as the defining moments of his life. Washington widens the activity of the signifier--not in a redemptively radical way concerned with redeeming or re-interpreting his political legacy. Rather, this analysis should demonstrate that his political actions and life activities were an outgrowth of a deep and canny skepticism he had for language systems. …

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