Langston Hughes wrote this poem honoring Booker T. Washington in 1941. The lines "Let down your bucket / Where you are" come from Washington's famous 1895 speech in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Cotton States and International Exposition. Born a slave in Virginia in 1856, Washington was the founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881. Under his leadership the institute became the largest and most famous school for African Americans in the South, and he became the best-known African American leader in the nation. Washington advocated for vocational training for African Americans and taught that through racial self-help and the accumulation of material wealth African Americans could endure and prosper in the racially segregated society imposed on them at the end of the nineteenth century and then slowly enter mainstream American culture. Political and civil rights would follow. At the 1895 exposition, Washington spoke his famous simile for segregated racial cooperation: "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Washington did not accept segregation or white supremacy as correct but sought ways for African Americans to make their own ways within segregated society that it was not possible for them to change. Many white Americans interpreted Washington's statements as an endorsement of racial segregation.
African American leader, W. E. B. Du Bois, who was born in Massachusetts in 1868, later called Washington's speech the "Atlanta Compromise" because it failed to challenge the premises of white supremacy and appeared to endorse racial segregation. Dubois, a scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Harvard, was a political activist and asserted that African Americans should struggle against discrimination at every opportunity and have every right to liberal educations and white-collar professions. He became the principal spokesman for African Americans who endorsed bolder tactics for improving the lives of African Americans. Du Bois's alternative to Washington's emphasis on incremental and nonconfrontational economic and educational progress for African Americans was a strong advocacy for individual rights and liberal higher education of the kind he had been fortunate enough to receive. Through the leadership of the best African American men and women, whom De Bois referred to as the "talented tenth," the race in the United States could make more rapid progress in breaking down the racial barriers that white society had erected. Dubois helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and he served as the editor of the organization's monthly magazine, the Crisis, from that year until 1934. He continued to fight for the rights of African Americans until the 1961 when he moved to Ghana, in West Africa, where he died in 1963.
The poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was a regular contributor to the Crisis. His first published poem appeared in the magazine in 1921. Hughes' poetry and other writings often described the lives and culture of working-class African Americans or themes that concerned that segment of the population. In this poem, the narrator tries to reconcile the reputation of Booker T. Washington as collaborator with white racists with the time period and place. The narrator points out, "For yesterday / Was not today" and "in Alabama in '85 / A joker was lucky / To be alive." In these lines he reminds the reader that the South late in nineteenth century was a dangerous place for an African American to protest racial segregation or appear to question white supremacy. Hughes was the great-nephew and namesake of Virginia's first African American Congressman, John Mercer Langston.
1. Who was Booker T. Washington?
2. Who was Langston Hughes?
3. Does the narrator of the poem agree with Booker T. Washington's ideas?
1. Compare the poem to Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition speech. How heavily did Langston Hughes borrow from Washington's speech? How does his use of the speech inform the subject of the poem?
2. Langston Hughes went through four drafts of this poem before coming up with the final version. Using the images located at the Library of Congress, examine the differences between the various drafts and the final version of the poem. What changes do you see? What decisions does Hughes make about word choice?
Norrell, Robert J. Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Bauerlein, Mark. "Washington, Du Bois, and the Black Future." Wilson Quarterly 28, no. 4 (Autumn 2004): 74–86.
Moore, Jacqueline M. Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003