Booker T. Washington and the Gospel of the Toothbrush

As I continue my theological exploration into Booker T Washington’s use of Scripture in his UP FROM SLAVERY, I arrived at Chapter 11, “Making their beds before they could lie in them.”

As a third and fourth grader at a primarily black Southern Baptist church, we had Sunday School lessons on personal hygiene. What did this have to do with soul salvation? Apparently, there is a long tradition of this in African American Christianities; it is what BTW and his friends called, “The Gospel of the Toothbrush.” When students first came to Tuskegee, the only thing they would have with them is a toothbrush. Toothbrushes brought “a higher degree of civilization among the students” (175). Apparently dental care is the thing that keeps black barbarians in check.

Booker T. Washington, as he usually does, takes a person that he knows, and makes them into a noble character through the act of telling a story. The hero from the beginning of this chapter is a General Armstrong, a colored man who fought for the Union yet was found without “a feeling of bitterness toward the white South” (164). Washington himself claimed that he had completely rid himself of all ill will towards white persons, and that he pitied the fool who was still had racial prejudice in her heart (165). Of course, the not too subliminal message from Booker T to other Negroes during his era, and probably even today: get over African enslavement and get on with life. Washington then goes on to debunk the racial myth that blacks would be insubordinate when other blacks (read:men) are in charge. No, this was not the case at Tuskegee; the students there are so submissive, they even would carry an umbrella for BTW on a rainy day (169). At this point of the book, I get the suspicion that BTW is living in a fairy tale. He tells a story about how he made a train ride trip from Dallas to Houston, and how the whites came up to congratulate him on his project (Tuskegee), and what it meant for the South. A few paragraphs later, he tells of a similar story of a trip in Georgia, with a twist– the awkward story of him having dinner on that train with two white women. BTW also claims to ne’er heard an insult from a white person as well.

Booker T. Washington’s ethic of forgiveness is part of the Pauline theological tradition of love, and not letting the sun go down while you are angry (Ephesians 4:26).  I think however, there is a difference between staying angry and bitter, and using righteous anger to confront sin.  To what ends will we go to sugarcoat the past? Is the past that much unbearable that we would have to look over facts to put on a good face for our former enemies? Is that not the cheapening of truth, and therefore making true reconciliation impossible?

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