In today’s society, the term “Uncle Tom” conjures up a very negative image. It depicts a weak, servile, and cowering black guy who betrays his race and its liberation cause. David Reynolds, an English professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School, revisits the original “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to discover that the figure depicted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her 1852 novel is the polar opposite of the caricature we now envision. His paper delves into how Stowe’s Uncle Tom evolved into the Uncle Tom we know today.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, a novelist who lived 200 years ago, was an unusual war fomenter. She was a stressed housewife with six children who suffered from many mysterious diseases, which were exacerbated by her chronic hypochondria. Despite this, she found time to create Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which became the most famous novel in American history and a catalyst for radical change both at home and abroad, propelled by a visceral loathing of slavery.
Of fact, because to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — a name that has become a byword for a weak sell-out, a black guy who betrays his race — the novel now has a totally different reputation. However, this viewpoint is blatantly incorrect: Uncle Tom was a role model for blacks and other oppressed people around the world, both physically and morally. Uncle Tom, in other words, was anything but a “Uncle Tom.”
Tom is described as a “big, broad-chested, powerfully-made guy” with a “self-respecting and dignified” countenance that signals “grave and solid good sense,” according to Stowe. He is a forty-year-old guy with a wife and three children who is noteworthy for not betraying fellow enslaved blacks. He declines an opportunity to flee his Kentucky plantation because he does not want to risk selling or punishing his fellow slaves.
Later, he is subjected to a brutal thrashing by slaveowner Simon Legree when he refuses to give the location of two enslaved ladies. Tom “felt strong in God to meet death rather than betray the weak,” according to the story. “Had not this man braved him–steadily, fiercely, resistlessly–ever since he acquired him?” Legree asks, referring to Tom as a boisterous troublemaker who is terrible because he is unyielding. Few enslaved blacks would have ventured to defy their owner as tenaciously as Tom does after the Civil War, according to a group of ex-slaves to whom the novel was read aloud.
Furthermore, in an era when whites widely regarded blacks as subhuman, lustful, or comically irresponsible, Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrated that they were capable of the full range of emotions—loyalty, friendship, sorrow, pity, and religious devotion—Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrated that they were capable of the full range of emotions. Stowe made a strong statement on every page: blacks were human, and enslaving them was wrong.
That’s why Southerners derided “Uncle Tom Cabin. I love the blacks” as a dangerously radical book in the mid-nineteenth century. Stowe was pictured in hell, surrounded by demons, holding Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a Southern political cartoon.
Southerners had previously considered it unnecessary to write extensive defenses of slavery, which they saw as a natural element of the American system. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on the other hand, stated its argument so forcefully and with such widespread popularity–it sold over 300,000 copies in the United States and about 1.5 million copies worldwide in a year–that it prompted a slew of rebuttals in Southern poems, reviews, articles, and books. In response to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” thirty books were published. Slavery was presented as a great institution, sanctioned by the Bible and the rules of the state, that supplied illiterate African savages with shelter, food, and religious teaching in these so-called anti-Tom tales.
Meanwhile, antislavery sentiment in the North was immensely bolstered by Stowe’s novel. Northerners felt the miseries of slavery for the first time on their nerve ends. Many anti-slavery activists jumped on the Uncle Tom bandwagon. Previously, the antislavery movement was split into small, divisive groups that were universally despised. Uncle Tom’s Cabin served as a catalyst for togetherness and cooperation among these disparate communities. Stowe was ecstatic when several antislavery groups embraced her novel. “It is a thing that I have never stopped to wonder at how the wildest and most extremist abolitionists have partnered with the coldest conservatives to welcome and advance my book,” she remarked.
A major cultural phenomenon is known as “Tomitudes”–representations of Stowe’s novel in all popular mediums: puzzles, card games, dolls, chinaware, and so on–added to the novel’s impact. Plays based on the novel were the most prominent tie-ins, with the first appearing just a few months after the novel’s publication in 1852. The drama Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen by many more people than the novel. Pathos, thrills, music, and stunning sceneries were all present in the play, which toured the North and won converts to the antislavery cause.
Northern working-class types who had previously been renowned for violence towards abolitionists or blacks were the most shocking converts. White working-class people cheered for escaped slaves, hissed at a brutal slave owner, and wept over the death of an enslaved black man, which was unprecedented.
The work played an important influence in the political reorganization that led to the birth of the anti-slavery Republican Party. As the novel’s popularity expanded, it provided a powerful push for antislavery activism. Many anti-slavery facts, before dismissed as extreme, is now received and read by all, according to one journalist in 1856.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a tremendous work on the public imagination, thundering along the path to reform. Prejudice is disarmed wherever it goes, antagonism is dispelled, and everyone’s emotions are touched by a new and strange feeling to which they were before strangers.
“A lady with her pen has done more for the cause of freedom, during the last year, than any scholar, statesman, or politician of our land,” exclaimed Ohio congressman Joshua Giddings on the House floor. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an incomparable book, is now bringing truth to the minds of millions who had previously been deaf to the screams of the oppressed.”
As a result, the novel condensed the slavery debate and heightened the tensions that led to the Civil War. By the eve of the war, the novel had “given birth to a dread against slavery in the Northern mind that all the politicians could never have created,” and “did more than anything else to array the North and South in compact masses against each other,” according to one commentator of the time.
The novel’s influence lasted well beyond the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave, stated in 1882 that no one had done more for the advancement of African Americans than Stowe.
“Thus to a feeble overloaded Yankee woman with a solid moral purpose we Americans, black and white, owe appreciation for the freedom and union that exist now in the United States of America,” observed black philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois later.
The book also sparked controversy in other countries. It affected the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 and later inspired Bolshevik leader Nikolai Lenin, who remembered it as his favorite novel as a boy. It was the first American novel to be translated and published in China, and it helped to fuel anti-slavery movements in both Cuba and Brazil.
The robust, proud Uncle Tom himself was at the center of the book’s revolutionary appeal. Unfortunately, Tom was horribly portrayed in post-Civil War theatrical adaptations of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which suited to Jim Crow sensibilities. Hundreds of playing troupes, known as Tommers, fanned out across North America in the 1890s, putting on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in every town, hamlet, and metropolis. Some troupes even went on foreign tours, performing in Australia and India. The play remained popular until the 1950s, and it is still staged on occasion, such as Alex Roe’s production at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York City’s East Village in fall 2010.
Stowe’s revolutionary ideals were often overshadowed by sentimentality and spectacle in many of the plays. Uncle Tom was frequently depicted as a hunched, meek old fool, the ideal image of a servile black man in post-Reconstruction, pre-civil rights America.
By the mid-twentieth century, Uncle Tom had become synonymous with a racial sellout, both physically and spiritually wounded. Uncle Tom labels were applied to black singers, sports personalities, and even established civil rights leaders, frequently by younger, more radical activists, as a manner of humiliating them in the eyes of the African-American community.
Uncle Tom should once again be a positive symbol for African-American advancement, but it doesn’t have to be that way. After all, many persons who were mocked as Uncle Toms in the past — Jackie Robinson, Louis Armstrong, and Willie Mays, to mention a few — are today regarded as daring racial pioneers.
Indeed, it was those who most closely resembled Uncle Tom – Stowe’s Tom, not the meek one of popular fiction — who was most effective in encouraging progress throughout the civil rights era. Rosa Parks didn’t mind being called an Uncle Tom because she felt that nonviolent moral protest might bring about significant change.
Even though he was known as Uncle Tom, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. adhered to moral nonviolence.
A pacifist priest who told America about his hope of a more equal nation, a quiet housewife who refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery. Their form of protest was just as active and effective as Tom’s. Both Stowe and Tom are worthy of our consideration – and our admiration.
This article was first published on BlackPast.org