First, I will admit that I have been teaching American history for almost 35 years and have never, until recently, read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
For several reasons, I suppose. First, it was never assigned in any high school or college courses. Second, my specialty was early American rather than the 19th century. Third, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was always one of those books that a person knew about (like Alice in Wonderland) and never quite got around to reading. Besides, everyone knew what the story is about: the horrors of slavery’; the heroic slave, Uncle Tom; the abolitionist point of view; the book that helped inaugurate the Civil War. What else could be gained by reading it?
So, the book has been on my bookcase since the 1980s, unopened, unperused. Until now. I finally read it. And, to my surprise, it was good, really good.
Unlike what I expected, the book was not just a polemical treatise against slavery, but a moving, dramatic tale that showed how slavery enslaved everyone, Whites as well as Blacks—and indeed, the memory, and continuing effects of slavery on American culture, still entangles everyone regardless of race or color.
Stowe’s writing is superb. The best part of the book is the portrayal a conversation between Augustine St. Claire and his cousin Ophelia. St. Claire, who is a handsome, young New Orleans planter who inherited his slaves and allows them a fairly easy existence; who is indolent; who despises slavery but has neither the courage nor the will to do anything about it, tells Ophelia:
“This cursed business, accursed of God and man, what is it? Strip it of all its ornament, run it down to the root and nucleus of the whole, and what is it? Why, because my brother Quashy [read, every slave] is ignorant and weak, and I am intelligent and strong,–because I know how, and can do it, –therefore, I may steal all he has, keep it, and give him only such so much as suits my fancy. Whatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable, for me, I may set Quashy to doing. Because I don’t like work, Quashy shall work. Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun. Quashy shall earn the money, and I will spend it. Quashy shall lie down in every puddle, that I may walk over dry-shod. Quashy shall do my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such chance of getting to heaven, at last, as I find convenient. This I take to be about what slavery is. I defy anybody on earth to read our slave-code, as it stands in our law-books, and make anything else of it. Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse! And the only reason why the land don’t sink under it, like Sodom and Gomorrah, is because it is used in a way infinitely better than it is. For pity’s sake, for shame’s sake . . . .” (pp 190-191, London: 1852)
Over time in America, beginning a few decades after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a pejorative term emerged, Uncle Tom, for the Black who kowtowed to Whites, who like the stereotypical Sambo would do whatever was necessary to fit into to the dominant White culture.
The Uncle Tom stereotype, however, seems in no way to be based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book.
Uncle Tom in the book is anything but a cowering, subservient Black dedicated to ingratiating himself into White culture. Indeed, I find his character to be quite the opposite.
Stowe’s Uncle Tom is a heroic figure, a person whom I wish I could be like, a person who will do right no matter what the cost, who is good in all ways, who has not allowed an evil institution to drive away the divine spark of goodness and righteousness within him.
Often over the years, slavery has been interpreted by scholars as a total institution that would, like Nazi concentration camps, attempt to make the slave a childlike blithering idiot whose only goal was to please his/her master.
Subsequent scholarship has shown this was far from the case, as Harriet Beecher Stowe knew, for her Uncle Tom has been able to rise above the total institution of slavery to keep his dignity and humanity.
It would be nice if there was a new stereotype of Uncle Tom, to represent self-sacrifice, for doing what is good and right, for Christian virtues, for love of fellow humans.
Uncle Tom was able to see that all humans are children of God, that all lives matter.