Alabama in Africa

Zimmerman, Andrew. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South. Second printing, and First paperback printing. America in the World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Andrew Zimmerman traces the involvement of teachers and former students of the Tuskegee Institute who went to Togo at the invitation of the German empire, to teach cotton farming techniques to the indigenous people. I had expected a story of good intentions wrecked by cultural differences, and to some extent the book provided that. But it did so much more that I did not expect.

According to Zimmerman, although the people of Togo conformed to American ideas about work, family, and production only reluctantly (if at all), the mission to Togo succeeded to training many producers to raise world grade cotton at competitive prices. And this success in turn, convinced many colonial powers in Africa of the need to copy the German model. That is, to keep indigenous peoples in dependent positions as producers of commodities, giving them “industrial” training in the manner of Tuskegee. In this way, Zimmerman, claims, the New South of the U.S. became a model for the Global South.

But it did this not only with the “missionaries” of Booker T. Washington but also through the social thought that developed in dialogue between the Tuskegee model and the Verein fur Sozialpolitik in Germany. The Polish worker question in East Prussia, it seems, posed many of the problems that newly freed African Americas did in the Reconstruction and Redemption eras in the South. Max Weber, out of his studies of and angst over the growth of Polish influence in eastern Prussia, developed views of the Polish workers there as ethnic and even racial others who had to be disciplined to labor. Weber owed a debt to Washington for the latter’s ideas about the primacy of labor for the American “Negro.” The two met in 1904, after Weber’s lecture at the St. Louis Exposition.

The Verein left a deep impress on American scholars who studied in Germany, including W.E.B. DuBois, Robert E. Park, and William I. Thomas. Zimmerman gives Park and Weber credit for developing the social vision that would dominate understandings of the Global South well into the 20th century. DuBois, of course, and Thomas, became critics of that social vision. But all of them had direct connections to Washington and Tuskegee, and indirect connections to Weber.

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