In Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address,” Washington makes an effort to inspire Blacks in an attempt to help them have an influence upon and rise in society. His address came in 1895, many years after the Civil War was over; however, Blacks were still suffering from many of the same injustices which they had been decades before. Washington, in a preacher-like tone, is attempting to encourage his people and help them improve their lives.
He starts out by giving us a useful analogy; we are told of a ship lost at sea for days, who finally sights another vessel. The lost ship asks the rescue ship to give them some water, to which they reply “cast down your bucket where you are,” as they fill it with fresh water. Washington advises Blacks to not underestimate the importance of forging relationships with whites, and to follow the lead of the lost vessel by casting their bucket in making friends. He is advocating that Blacks avoid discriminating who they deal with, and to make friends “in every manly way of the people of all races.”
Washington goes on to say that Blacks should not overlook the fact that many within their race will make their living through labor, or “the productions of our hands” and that a wide variety of professions should be considered, including agriculture, mechanics, commerce and domestic service. He advises that common labor should be dignified and glorified, not frowned upon.
I think it’s important that Washington makes a passionate point in saying that many of the “common occupations of life” are still extremely important, and that working in these jobs involves intelligence and skills that are essential in influencing society. He goes as far as to say that “no race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem,” and I think this is significant at a time when many Blacks could not get jobs other than these common occupations. He is saying that people should not only be content, but that they should do the best they can with what they have and embrace it.
This section of Washington’s Address is very powerful and inspiring. It came at a time when many Blacks were undoubtedly lacking confidence that they could influence society, or move up within it. He was trying to lift his people up with his words by telling them to embrace all opportunities and races, and to make the best out of whatever comes their way. Instead of looking at common jobs as meaningless, look at them instead as an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge you have. At the same time, he tells Whites to do the same, and to embrace his people for all the good they can provide.