Norrell challenges the negative images of Washington that have been engrained in the modern mind--one as an “Uncle Tom” compromiser and another as a “cunning and ruthless strategist” (the latter phrase is Sanneh’s, reflecting Louis Harlan’s 1972 portrait). Sanneh says that Norrell describes Washington as “more like a man under siege, projecting strength and flexibility because he knew how precarious his empire was.”
It will be interesting to see if Norrell’s view of Washington as a “heroic failure” gains traction.
Sanneh, for one, never quite accepts that view. He seems to minimize the value of compromise and accommodation, implying that Washington should have acted differently, perhaps more like his rival W. E. B. Du Bois. And Sanneh suggests that Washington had a character flaw that made him act deceptively, including toward fellow blacks (although his five-page article doesn’t list outright deceptions).
I haven’t read Norrell’s book yet, but I did read his 2005 The House I Live In: Race in the American Century, which gives plenty of reasons to believe that Washington’s position was precarious. It underscores the viciousness of race relations in turn-of-the century and early-20th-century America (and not just in the South). Just as Washington was trying to give blacks a blueprint for progress, laws were proliferating that solidified white control, backed by lynchings (nearly 200 a year in the 1890s) and other violent actions.
In that environment, would Washington have been more successful with something other than a strategy of practical education, social separation, and avoidance of politics? And perhaps he was successful, building a foundation (symbolized by Tuskegee Institute) that served blacks well during a time of oppression, even though its philosophy was eventually rejected.
Others who know much more about this than I do are the ones to evaluate Booker T. Washington's successes and failures for the current generation. But that evaluation should, at the least, be based on the environment in which he lived, not on the one we live in today.