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Ballad of Booker T


Langston Hughes’ 1941 poem titled “Ballad of Booker T” is an insightful defense of Booker T. Washington, the renowned African American educator and political activist, who many perceived to be a sympathizer of white supremacist principles. The poem is part of a large collection of many cultural and political commentaries on race relations in the US written by Langston Hughes in the early 1900s. In “Ballad of Booker T” Hughes makes a case in defense of the famous political activist who was harshly condemned by many African Americans for shunning radicalism and emphasizing on acquisition of vocational training as a means of political empowerment. In the poem, Hughes portrays Booker T. Washington as an original civil rights hero rather than the conformist many took him to be for failing to take a more radical role in the African American empowerment struggle.

In an intuitive narrative style, the poem highlights the importance of Washington’s emphasis on training the head, hand, and heart as a prerequisite for both economic and political empowerment of African Americans. Just like a tall tower rooted in solid ground, African Americans had to empower themselves through vocational training before they could achieve political recognition. The author focuses on Booker T. Washington’s practical approach stating that compromise was sometimes necessary just as one had to first learn how to crawl before walking. By referring to the 1885 Alabama protest, and how even a joker would have found it hard to stay alive, Hughes is stressing on the importance of surviving to fight another day as a sign of bravery rather than weakness.

In the poem, Hughes’ describes Booker T. Washington as a practical man who played a key role in promoting black consciousness despite being criticized by many for his non-radical methods. Hughes reminds the reader what a dangerous place the South was in the 19th century for a radical African American trying to question the status quo, much less protesting against racial segregation.

The poem, written 25 years after Booker T. Washington’s death, underwent four revisions before Hughes finally published the fifth version. A close scrutiny of all the five typewritten revisions of the poem shows how much respect Hughes had for Booker T. Washington’s non-radical thinking and accomplishments. In the closing verse of the poem, Hughes pays tribute to Washington and others who followed him in the struggle against racial segregation.

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