Table of Contents
Character Building by Booker T. Washington
Chapter 16 On Opportunities
Several of the things which I shall say to you to-night may not sound very agreeable or encouraging to many of you, yet I think you will agree with me that they are facts that cannot be denied.
We must recognize the fact, in the first place, that our condition as a race is, in a large measure, different from the condition of the white race by which we are surrounded; that our capacity is very largely different from that of the people of the white race. I know we like to say the oppo-site. It sounds well in compositions, does well in rhetoric, and makes a splendid essay, for us to make the opposite assertion. It does very well in a newspaper article, but when we come down to hard facts we must acknowledge that our condition and capacity are not equal to those of the majority of the white people with whom we come in daily contact.
Of course that does not sound very well; but to say that we are equal to the whites is to say that slavery was no disadvantage to us. That is the logic of it. To illustrate, suppose a person has been confined in a sick room, deprived of the use of his faculties, the use of his body and senses, and that he comes out and is placed by the side of a man who has been healthy in body and mind. Are these two persons in the same condi-tion? Are they equal in capacity? Is the young animal of a week old, although he has all the characteristics that his mother has, as strong as she? With proper development he will be, in time, as strong as she, but it is unreasonable to say that he is as strong at present. And so, I think, this is all that we can say of ourselves-with proper development our condition and capacity will be the same as those of the people of any other race.
Now, the fact that our capacity as a people is different, and that the conditions which we must meet are different, makes it reasonable for us to believe that, when the question of education is considered, we shall find that different educational methods are desirable for us from those which would be appropriate to the needs of a people whose capacity and conditions are different from ours. What we most need, in my opinion, for the next few generations, is such an education as will help us most effectually to conquer the forces of nature;-I mean in the general sense of supplying food, clothing, homes, and a substantial provision for the future.
Do not think that I mean by this that I do not believe in every indi-vidual getting all the education he or she can get,-for I do. But since for some years to come, at least, it must of necessity be impossible for all of our young people to get all the education possible, or even all they may want to get, I believe they should apply their energies to getting such a training as will be best fitted to supply their immediate needs.
In Scotland, for instance, where higher education has been within reach of the people for many years, and where the people have reached a high degree of civilization, it is not out of place for the young people to give their time and attention to the study of metaphysics and of law and the other professions. Of course I do not mean to say that we shall not have lawyers and metaphysicians and other professional men after a while, but I do mean to say that I think the efforts of a large majority of us should be devoted to securing the material necessities of life.
When you speak to the average person about labor-industrial work, especially-he seems to get the idea at once that you are opposed to his head being educated-that you simply wish to put him to work. Anybody that knows anything about industrial education knows that it teaches a person just the opposite-how not to work. It teaches him to make water work for him, air, steam, and all the forces of nature. That is what is meant by industrial education.
Let us make an illustration. Yesterday I was over in the creamery and became greatly interested in the process of separating the cream. The only energy spent was that required to turn a crank. The apparatus had been so constructed as to utilize natural forces. Now compare the old process of butter-making with the new. Before, you had to go through a long process of drudgery before the cream could be separated from the milk, and then another long process before the cream could be turned into butter, and then, even after churning three or four hours at a time, you got only a small portion of butter. Now what we mean by giving you an industrial education is to teach you so to put brains into your work that if your work is butter-making, you can make butter simply by stand-ing at a machine and turning a crank.
If you are studying chemistry, be sure you get all you can out of the course here, and then go to a higher school somewhere else. Become as proficient in the science as you can. When you have done this, do not sit down and wait for the world to honor you because you know a great deal about chemistry-you will be disappointed if you doubt if you wish to make the best use of your knowledge of chemistry, come back here to the South and use it in making this poor soil rich, and in making good butter where the farmers have made poor butter before. Used in this way you will find that your knowledge of chemistry will cause others to honor you.
During the last thirty years we, as a race, have let some golden opportunities slip from us, and partly, I fear, because we have not had enough plain talk in the direction I am following with you tonight. If you ever have an opportunity to go into any of the large cities of the North you will be able to see for yourselves what I mean. I remember that the first time I went north -and it was not so very many years ago-it was not an uncommon thing to see the barber shops in the .hands of colored men. I know colored men who in that way could have become comfort-ably rich. You cannot find to-day in the city of New York or Boston a first-class barber shop in the hands of colored men. That opportu-nity is gone, and something is wrong that it is so. Coming nearer home; go to Montgomery, Memphis, New Orleans, and you will find that the barber shops are gradually slipping away from the hands of the colored men, and they are going back into dark streets and, opening little holes. These opportunities have slipped from us largely because we have not learned to dignify labor. The colored man puts a dirty little chair and a pair of razors into a dirtier looking hole, while the white man opens his shop on one of the principal streets, or in connection with some fash-ionable hotel, fits it up luxuriously with carpets, handsome mirrors and other attractive furniture, and calls the place a "tonsorial parlour." The proprietor sits at his desk and takes the cash. He has transformed what we call drudgery into a paying business.
Still another instance, you can remember that only a few years ago one of the best paying positions that a large number of colored men filled was that of doing whitewashing. A few years ago it would not have been hard to see colored men in Boston, Philadelphia or Washington carry-ing a whitewash tub and a long pole into somebody's house to do a job of whitewashing. You go into the North to-day, and you will find very few colored men at that work. White men learned that they could dignify that branch of labor, and they began to study it in schools. They gained knowledge of chemistry which would enable them to understand the mixing of the necessary ingredients; they learned decorating and frescoing; and now they call themselves "house decorators." Now that job is gone, perhaps to come no more; for now that these men have elevated this work, and introduced more intelligent skill into it, do you suppose anyone is going to allow some old man with a pole and a bucket to come into the house?
Then there is the field occupied by the cooks. You know that all over the South we have held and still hold to a large extent-the matter of cooking in our hands. Wherever there was any cooking to be done, a colored man or a colored woman did it. But while we still have some-thing of a monopoly of this work, it is a fact that even this is slipping away from us. People do not wish always to eat fried meat, and bread that is made almost wholly of water and salt. They get tired of such food, and they desire a person to cook for them who will put brains into the work. To meet this demand white people have transformed what was once the menial occupation of cooking into a profession; they have gone to school and studied how to elevate this work, and if we can judge by the almost total absence of colored cooks in the North, we are led to believe that they have learned how. Even here in the South colored cooks are grad-ually disappearing, and unless they exert themselves they will go entirely. They have disappeared in the North because they have not kept pace with the demand for the most improved methods of cooking, and because they have not realized that the world is moving forward rapidly in the march of civilization. A few days ago, when in Chicago, I noticed in one of the fashionable restaurants a fine-looking man, well dressed, who seemed to be the proprietor. I asked who he was, and was told that he was the "chef," as he is called-the head cook. Of course I was surprised to see a man dressed so stylishly and presenting such an air of culture, filling the place of chief cook in a restaurant, but I remembered then, more forcibly than ever, that cooking had been transformed into a profession into dignified labor.
Still another opportunity is going, and we laugh when we mention it, although it is really no laughing matter. When we think of what we might have done to elevate it in the same way that white persons have elevated it, we realize that it was an opportunity after all. I refer to the opportunity which was in boot-blacking. Of course, here in the South, we have that yet, to a large extent, because the competition here is not quite so sharp as in the North. In too many Southern towns and cities, if you wish your shoes blacked, you wait until you meet a boy with a box slung over his shoulder. When he begins to polish your shoes you will very likely see that he uses a much-worn shoe brush, or, worse still, a scrubbing brush, and unless you watch him closely there is a chance that he will polish your shoes with stove polish. But if you go into a Northern city you will find that such a boy as this does not stand a chance of making a living. White boys and even men have opened shops which they have fitted up with carpets, pictures, mirrors, and comfortable chairs, and sometimes their brushes are even run by electricity. They have the latest newspapers always within reach for their patrons to read while their work is being done, and they grow rich. The man who owns and runs such a place as that is not called a "bootblack"; he is called the propri-etor of such and such a "Shoe-blacking Emporium." And that chance is gone to come no more. Now there are many colored men who under-stand about electricity, but where is the colored man who would apply his knowledge of that science to running brushes in a boot-black stand?
In the South it was a common thing when anybody was taken ill to notify the old mammy nurse. We had a monopoly of the nursing busi-ness for many years, and up to a short time ago it was the common opinion that nobody could nurse but one of those old black mammies. But this idea is being dissipated. In the North, when a person gets ill, he does not think of sending for anyone but a professional nurse, one who has received a diploma from some nurse-training school, or a certificate of proficiency from some reputable institution.
I hope you have understood me in what I have been trying to say of these little things. They all tend to show that if we are to keep pace with the progress of civilization, we must pay attention to the small things as well as the larger and more important things in life. They go to prove that we must put brains into what we do. If education means anything at all, it means putting brains into the common affairs of life and making something of them. That is just what we are seeking to tell to the world through the work of this institution.
There are many opportunities all about us where we can use our education. You very rarely see a man idle who knows all about house building, who' knows how to draw plans, to test the strength of mate-rials that enter into the making of a first class house. Did you ever see such a man out of a job? Did you ever see such a man as that writing letters to this place and that place applying for work? People are wanted allover the world who can do work well, Men and women are wanted who understand the preparation and supplying of food-I don't mean in the small menial sense-but people who know all about it. Even in this there is a great opportunity. A few days ago I met a woman who had spent years in this country and in Europe studying the subject of food economics in all its details. I learn that this person is in constant demand by institu-tions of learning and other establishments where the preparation and the serving of food are important features. She spends a few months at each institution. She is wanted everywhere, because she has applied her education to one of the most important necessities of life.
And so you will find it all through life-those persons who are going to be constantly sought after, constantly in demand, are those who make the best use of their opportunities, who work unceasingly to become proficient in whatever they attempt to do. Always be sure that you have something out of which you can make a living, and then you will not only be independent, but you will be in a much better position to help your fellow-men.
I have spoken about these matters at this length because I believe them to be the foundation of our future success. We often hear a man spoken of as having moral character. A man cannot have moral charac-ter unless he has something to wear, and something to eat three hundred and sixty-five days in a year... he cannot have any religion either. You will find at the bottom of much crime the fact that the criminals have not had the common necessities of life supplied them. Men must have some of the comforts and conveniences-certainly the necessities of life-sup-plied them before they can be morally or religiously what they ought to be.