Bricks: Booker T Washington & Exodus 5:5-19

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

— Exodus 1:13-14, NRSV

In case you have not noticed, these posts about Booker T Washington’s Up From Slavery and biblical passages have been about how Scripture’s story can inform us of how to deal with our life experiences.

Many black scholars of religion, who discuss the enslaved Africans and their religion, suggest that the Exodus (as part of that small “Slave Catechism” where there were portions of the Bible taken out by the enslavers) was an important part of the enslaved African hermeneutic. Why else would they add Moses and Joshua to their pantheon of saints in their Sorrow songs? For Booker T. Washington, he remains silent on Moses so far, and focuses on the hard labor that the enslaved ancient Hebrews in Egypt, and while they were in terrible conditions, in similar ways, Jim & Jane Crow was seen as a Pharaoh to be forgiven. In chapter 10, the chapter entitled “A harder task than making brick with straw,” Booker recalls the first years of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where they used a shack located near a run-down Methodist church. Interestingly, although BTW never mentions Elisha, this story reminds me of the time Elisha and his small group of disciples building a campus (2nd Kings 6:1-7).

Washington’s plan was to have all the brick buildings constructed by the hands of the students. The student’s labor would give them pride, but their problem was “the task of making bricks with no money and no experience” (150). After a year or so, the experiment became a profitable business, both in monetary terms and race relations. For you see, white southerners saw these Tuskegee black men and women making and selling bricks, so “their business interests became intermingled” (153). Of course, it is this relational aspect of the free market that gives the free market its advantage over other economies. According to BTW, race relations improved not in the trading, but in the personal encounters between Negroes and whites. While DuBois’s promotion of the intellectual propagation of a few remained in the abstract, BTW’s vision had evidence of being more concrete.

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