by Robert J. Norrell
(Harvard, 508 pages, $35)
The first black man to dine at the White House never lacked critics. Born into slavery in 1856, Booker T. Washington built one of the nation’s largest institutions of higher learning, the all-Negro Tuskegee Institute, before he was 40. In 1895, he made himself the most famous black man in America by delivering a speech in Atlanta that endorsed the notion that blacks and whites could remain “as separate as the fingers” in all things social. But while black observers in the North lambasted him as a self-aggrandizing sellout, Washington was quietly funneling money to battle black disenfranchisement. In his clandestine correspondence, the code name he chose was a wink toward his distant detractors. He asked allies to call him “His Nibs”—slang for “pompous ass.”
Robert J. Norrell’s “compelling” new biography overturns the standard image of Washington as a by-the-book Uncle Tom, said Jason L. Riley in The Wall Street Journal. In truth, it wasn’t until the civil-rights era that Washington’s black critics clearly began to outnumber his black admirers. In his day, Washington was an exemplar of black achievement—a man of learning, an institution builder, a counselor to the rich and powerful. His acquiescence on social segregation was coupled with a passion and talent for building black economic might. Norrell’s work is a long-overdue reminder that Washington came of age in an era when “the animosity of whites” was intense enough “to shrivel the soul,” said Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post. That for the past half-century we’ve viewed him as “anything less” than heroic “borders on the incomprehensible.”
Yet Norrell’s rehabilitation effort “might be more persuasive if its aims were less obvious,” said Kelefa Sanneh in The New Yorker. While acknowledging Washington’s flaws, the author “spends a lot of time making excuses.” More disheartening, though, is how he inadvertently diminishes Washington by labeling him “a heroic failure.” The epithet, like the rest of the book, places too much emphasis on the forces who opposed Washington. It would be more appropriate to celebrate the pragmatic cunning that allowed him to rise so high.