Contained in this book are three essential works for those interested in the history in the history of African-Americans and even of the United States as a whole, as the African-American experience is one quite important aspect of the wider American experience. Each of these is a great book in its own right; the effect of reading the three successively, all combined in a single volume, is tremendous. Each tells the story, from a unique perspective, of one of the greatest injustices in the history of the world, namely, the enslavement and subsequent marginalization of millions of people because of the color of their skin.
The book begins with Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, his autobiography. He begins by recalling his earliest childhood memories as a slave in the Deep South as well as the long-awaited day of emancipation. He then discusses his rise from a slave boy to his international fame and leadership of a leading institution of higher learning for African-Americans, through the mentorship of General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, whom he adoringly refers to as “General Armstrong” throughout this book. Along the way, Washington seeks to explain and justify his preference for industrial training over liberal education for African-Americans. While I could not disagree with him more on that subject, it is nonetheless a fascinating insight into his intentions and the philosophy behind them.
W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk forms the centerpiece of the book, fitting, not only because it comes midway between the two chronologically, but because it is thematically a point of connection between both of the other works contained in this volume, completing Washington’s work and setting the stage for Johnson’s. It is also fitting, I believe, because it is the standout best of the three works featured here. Du Bois, a Northern black born into freedom, raised in a mostly white small town in Massachusetts, and granted a quality liberal education which culminated in post-graduate work at Harvard University, provides the insight that only he could provide as a simultaneously insider and outsider. As a well-educated Northerner, he saw the blacks of the South as an outsider would see them; as a black man who dared to venture into the Jim Crow South, however, he knew their suffering intimately and at firsthand. The insight he provides into a people group as yet unexplored makes this one of the greatest books not only of African-American literature, nor even of American literature, but of the literature of the world.
Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man caps off this volume with the story of a man with a white father and a mulatto mother who was able to pass himself off nearly everywhere he went as a white man. The result is a lifetime of confusion and hesitation, wondering at the duality into which he had been placed by his genetics, in which he could choose, as his conscience called him to do, to identify with the oppressed minority with whom he had a genetic and cultural connection through his mother, or, as his natural human desire for comfort and safety called him to do, identify with that aspect of his heritage granted him especially through his father. It is the story of a man ripped apart by the same policies which ripped the United States apart for a century, the malignant legacy of which still lingers in the air today.