Racial uplift emerged in the aftermath of Reconstruction as a powerful philosophy of social advancement for African Americans subject to the absolute subordination and disfranchisement of Jim Crow, and it found its greatest institutional expression in the African American college. This essay posits that debates over the methods of African American higher education shaped the function of literature within black modernity. It explores how Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington transformed literature and books into instruments of a practical approach to learning through a pedagogical method he named dovetailing. The dovetailing method sought to correlate acts of reading and writing with industrial and agricultural training, instantiating an instrumental relation to literary expression that this essay terms vocational realism. Examining vocational realism as an important touchstone in African American literary history writ large repositions the canonical Washington as a figure with a more complex relation to the literary than scholars have previously discerned. Turning to curricular and institutional materials and to the writing and public addresses of Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, this essay argues that the fractious debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries regarding the social utility of literature in the lives of black citizens established the critical, artistic, and reformist fault lines of the Harlem Renaissance.