Tag Archives: civil war

Re/Considering Uncle Tom

Laurie says:

This month is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a major figure in the abolitionist and other social change movements of her day.



Harriet Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896) was a American Abolitionist and author. Her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1852) depicted life for African Americans under slavery; it reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the US and the United Kingdom. It energized anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. She wrote more than 20 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential both for her writings and her public stands on {social issues} of the day.

I read about her in high school, but the major influence on my opinion of her was James Baldwin’s critical  pairing of her with Richard Wright in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel in Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin castigates her for being too sentimental, and for portraying black slaves as praying to a white God so as to be cleansed/whitened. Equally, he repudiate Richard Wright’s book Native Son for portraying Bigger Thomas as an angry black man – he views that as an example of stigmatizing categorization.

I changed my mind (much as I have always admired Baldwin) after learning a lot more about the history and context of her work, and reading the book again myself.

Except for an oddly deprecatory first paragraph, David Reynolds has written an excellent timely essay in the NY Times on Rescuing the Real Uncle Tom.

…driven by a passionate hatred of slavery, she found time to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which became the most influential novel in American history and a catalyst for radical change both at home and abroad.

Today, of course, the book has a decidedly different reputation, thanks to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — whose name has become a byword for a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race.

And we tend to think of the novel itself as an old-fashioned, rather lachrymose affair that features the deaths of an obsequious enslaved black man and his blond, angelic child-friend, Little Eva.

But this view is egregiously inaccurate: the original Uncle Tom was physically strong and morally courageous, an inspiration for blacks and other oppressed people worldwide. In other words, Uncle Tom was anything but an “Uncle Tom.”

Indeed, that’s why in the mid-19th century Southerners savagely attacked “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a dangerously subversive book, while Northern reformers — especially blacks — often praised it. The ex-slave Frederick Douglass affirmed that no one had done more for the progress of African-Americans than Stowe.

The book was enormously popular in the North during the 1850s and helped solidify support behind the antislavery movement. As the black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois later wrote, “Thus to a frail overburdened Yankee woman with a steadfast moral purpose we Americans, both black and white, owe our gratitude for the freedom and the union that exist today in these United States.”

The book stoked fires overseas, too. In Russia it influenced the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and later inspired Vladimir Lenin, who recalled it as his favorite book in childhood. It was the first American novel to be translated and published in China, and it fueled antislavery causes in Cuba and Brazil.

At the heart of the book’s progressive appeal was the character of Uncle Tom himself: a muscular, dignified man in his 40s who is notable precisely because he does not betray his race; one reason he passes up a chance to escape from his plantation is that he doesn’t want to put his fellow slaves in danger. And he is finally killed because he refuses to tell his master where two runaway slaves are hiding.

It’s worth reading the whole essay. And if there is time in your life for it, it’s definitely worth reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


Confronted by the Hard Work of Compassion

Laurie says:

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been reading and studying about the pre-civil war slave owning south for quite a while. Most recently he’s read Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers Of Invention, a history of women in slave holding families during the Civil War.

And he writes about the deep knowing of compassion in relation to this history. The point of it all is not to clean anyone, is not exoneration. The point is a deeper level of knowing. His conversation is complex and clear. This is one of many blogs on the subject.

Read the whole post

…And still in all, I am filled with questions. Chief among them, how does any human being in the 19th century come to endorse mass slaughter for the cause of raising a republic built on slavery?

To answer such a question, it is not enough to understand cause of the Civil War. A debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag is almost beside the point. You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just. But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.

More than any other book, Mothers has confronted me with the hard work of compassion. It is Du Bois again, like loving Mencken, like saluting the technological genius of Birth Of A Nation, like loving all those black and white movies that did not love you. To understand, to get it, black people must, if only for the moment, get out of ourselves and see the world through the eye of our tormentors….

Having seen some of that, I have come to see that our tormentors had tormentors, that the slave-holding woman was trapped by hoop-skirts and convention, that the man was trapped by lineage and human folly. The point of it all is not to clean anyone, is not exoneration. The point is a deeper level of knowing. The most powerful piece of art I’ve ever seen on the slave trade is Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.” The poem is mostly free of didactic condemnation, and almost entirely told in the voice of the slavers. And yet in what it doesn’t say, in its willingness to cross over, it says so much.

In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving. No. My compassion is utterly selfish, and is rooted in a craving for power. It is compelled by my curiosity, itself, just another name for hunger, for desire, for want of the great power of knowing. It is not enough for me to sit around scoring morality points on dead people, all the while blind to the living morality of this troubled time. There’s no power in that. I need to know more.

I find where he is going/gone both compelling and admirable. It’s a space I can visit but my anger and discomfort doesn’t let me stay there for any prolonged time. But like him I don’t want to be “blind to the living morality of this troubled time.” So although I suspect that my anger will always exceed my compassion, I persevere.