Atlanta Exposition Speech Analysis Pt. 2
A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal,“Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, water; send us water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.
Dr. Washington uses a true story, here, as an analogy of a truth he understood regarding how one may miss the life saving nourishment or answer when it is right in front of them. At this time he saw the beginnings of the migration to the north by many ex-slaves in what would be a decades long migration. He was not referring to black Americans wanting to return to Africa, or seeking a better life in another country, he was referring to the North as being a foreigh land, and the South as being our home that offered the relief sought. Many of those who had suffered in the South, first in a state of slavery, and now again after the end of reconstruction and the introduction of Jim Crow laws, had had enough. They saw the promise of fresh water and a better life, in the industrial North. Dr. Washington believed and sought to convince others of his vision for the South and what it offered. He believed that the abundance of land and need for the industrial and agricultural products of the South offered the promise of prosperity and true power to the ex-slaves. He also saw early warining signs of the dangers that lay ahead in the ghettos of the North.
Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.
This is may be the most powerful passage of the entire speech, yet greatly overlooked and/or misunderstood. Dr. Washington is stating basic economics 101, and putting in simple terms the philosophy and truth of Adam Smith as put forth in his immortal work, which formed the foundation for our nations capitalistic economy "The Wealth of Nations." Booker T. Washington is not saying that black americans should relegate themselves to doing menial work, or chhose to remain a lower class, but that basic foundational work for a wage is the building block for future advancement of a people. Smith put forth the principle that wealth is built by exchanging the value of our work for capital and the building of that capital with the creation of estates would lead to true freedom and prosperity for those who achive it.
I find it interesting that Dr. Washington was prophetic in stating that "no race can prosper till it learns that there is a s much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem." That could be simply restated as, " till we learn that there is as much dignity and honor in working a 9-5 as there is in writing a hip hop tune." We must learn what is truly important, and what leads to true wealth, not just riches. Riches can be lost or stolen, true wealth continues form generation to generation. A foundation must be established. A foundation of earning, saving, investing and empowering. This begins at the bottom, not at the top. As long as we seek to enter at the top we will not learn how to get and remain there. A strong and successful race or nation is one that learns how to build foundation upon foundation understanding that it is what we leave for our posterity that really matters and that our posterity understands what their responsibiliies are to what they receive. May we learn understand and teach those principles.