A dense reassessment of an iconic figure in American history with special attention to his notion of race relations as a key to social progress for African-Americans.
West (History/College of the Holy Cross) presents not so much a biography of Washington as a history of an idea. In fact, those hoping to read a narrative about Washington’s life had best look elsewhere, for West buries his biographical details in protracted paragraphs (some featuring words like “problematizing”) that general readers will find more dissuasive than inviting. It is pleasant to take a leisurely journey along the path of a 125-word sentence in Trollope, but following the lengthy, labyrinthine trail blazed by a less skilled writer is merely tedious. This is not to impugn either the author’s research or its results. There is much to think about and learn in these pages. West reminds us that Washington was not the only former slave who lived out a tale worthy of Horatio Alger (who, as the author points out, began publishing his stories about the time Washington was born, in 1856). West also deals frankly with Washington’s nearly fanatical fastidiousness (a former student recalls Washington’s pauses in grammar lessons to chide his charges about their personal hygiene) and with his wont to ridicule blacks in his speeches before white audiences. But West’s principal interest is to explore the origins of Washington’s belief in “race relations” and to analyze its pernicious consequences. Washington and his followers failed to see that their focus on “getting along” delayed rather than accelerated the granting of full human and civil rights to blacks. De jure and de facto segregation were the result; Jim Crow was the beneficiary. West believes that Washington’s notion persists in many quarters and concludes that “American democracy was betrayed by the American people.” The author offers interesting assessments of other commentators on race—especially Gunnar Myrdal and (a surprise) William Dean Howells.
Significant ideas entangled in turgid and uninviting prose.