In my study of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), I came across an unusual phrase, “the gospel of the toothbrush,” its practice and symbolic meaning providing a perspective from which to view this graced life.

Born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in1856, the author experienced its stink until the end of the Civil War. His passion to learn drove him to leave home in1872, with fifty cents in his pocket, and walk five hundred miles to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for black students. There, he came under the tutelage of its founder, General S. Armstrong, and learned about the “gospel of the toothbrush” and the importance of oral hygiene and so much more.

In 1881, Washington, now an educator, founded a similar institute in Tuskegee, Alabama and implemented this gospel/good news among his students, former slaves, desperate to learn as he had been, many arriving on campus with only a toothbrush.

Preservation of their teeth through daily brushing also ingrained within the students the imperative of thoroughly chewing and digesting the avalanche of new learning, their daily fare. Manual work and academics filled the curriculum. Within its ambiance, they discovered their unique personhood and became teachers, tradesmen and women, with an entrée into the white world around them—no matter that lynchings, the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, and waffling federal legislation undermined these strivings.

Booker T. Washington, an educator who knew the spirit of his people, never asked of his students what he himself had not achieved. His autobiography, Up from Slavery, evidences his wisdom and meek spirit—a critical read for us still in bondage.

 

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