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Dave Wood's Book Report, Feb. 25, 2009

A new book sheds new light on a well-known historical educator.

"Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington," by Robert J. Norell (Harvard University Press, $35) is a fine new look at a historical figure who has suffered a bad rap for too long.

Booker T. Washington has taken some hard knocks from the rest of black community in the past century. Never mind that he almost single-handedly built a black college, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, bigger than any other college in the state. Never mind that he was able to raise money from white northern liberals one day, then turn his attention to mollifying southern racists the next.

The latter, of course, earned him his reputation as an Uncle Tom, urged on by more in-your-face radicals like W.E.B. Dubois and the NAACP, despite the fact he spoke out against Jim Crow laws, inequalities in education funding, job opportunities and lynching.

Uncle Tom or not, successful or not, Norrell points out that even though in Washington's time the racial situation was getting close to "final solution" mentality, black farmers stubbornly attended crop rotation seminars every year at Tuskegee, as if they had a say in their lives.

Thank goodness for Norell's new book, which puts Washington squarely in his historical context not ours. It's easy for 21st century blacks and liberal whites to belittle Washington's persona as a get-along guy who sucks up to whites to earn a toehold in the post-Civil War South, long before it was acceptable by most folks

Norell claims that Washington wore the mask of "bargainer," or "fox," that "face by which blacks promise not to protest racism if, in return, their blackness is not held against them." So Washington's mask came across as a leader who was "clear-headed and modest, sensible and polite."

Sort of like ... guess who? Barack Obama.

Obama himself admits he learned early on that whites were usually pleasantly surprised when they discovered him to be "a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry all the time."

No less an authority than Shelby Steele, author of "A Content of Our Character," senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and a black person who writes that Norell has "Given back to America one of its greatest heroes."

Good news on the regional front. Congratulations to Minnesotan Susan Marie Swanson for her children's book, "The House in the Night," (Houghton Mifflin, $17), illustrated by Beth Kronnes.

A book for ages 3 to 6, it recently won the prestigious Randolph Caldecott Medal for its story about a house, a bed and a night.

As of this end-of-February writing Swanson's is ninth on the New York Times Best Seller List.

Not such good news on the national front, however. There's a recent article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in Harper's that goes a long way in explaining the sad state of book publishing in the United States. The problem he says is that most houses have been taken over by multi-national conglomerates.

Here's a sample:

"Knopf and Vintage are parts of Random House, which is owned by Bertelsmann (of Germany); Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of the last great holdouts, is now owned by Holtzbrinck (also of Germany), which also owns St. Martin's/Henry Holt and Picador; Little, Brown and Grand Central Publishing are owned by Hachette, which in turn is owned by Rupert Murdoch; Penguin is owned by Pearson of the United Kingdom; and Simon & Schuster was bought by Gulf & Western which became Paramount, which was bought by Viacom, which was bought by CBS...."


Dave would like to hear from you. Call him at (715) 426-9554.