Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has a complicated and quite controversial legacy. On the one hand, the novel was one of the first literary attempts at portraying the plight of African Americans in a sympathetic way by a white person. On the other hand, the protagonist has since morphed into a stereotype that has been deemed as a rather racist representation of African American people (Stowe). Therefore, defining “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as either an entirely flawless attempt at addressing the atrocities of slavery or a completely butchered portrayal of African American people and their struggle would be wrong. Furthermore, claiming Stowe to be a racist would be inappropriate given the difference in the time period and the inability to receive explanations from the author herself. However, viewing the novel through the present-day lens will show that the novel has several problematic elements that would portray Stowe racist in her depiction of the lead characters and the struggles of African American people in the era of slavery. Due to the excessive focus on the role of white Americans in the liberation of African American slaves, as well as the portrayal of the titular character and his family members as compliant, lauding the specified qualities, the novel introduces a rather racist concept of an African American person.
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When discussing the presence of racism in Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” one must focus on the way in which the titular character was developed first. Specifically, uncle Tom has been defined multiple times as a rather offensive archetype of an African American slave who is compliant and content with his status and is happy to serve his master. Indeed, in a range of scenes, Uncle Tom never questions the cruelty of white people or the unfairness of the situation, in general, perceiving slavery as a given: “The longest way must have its close – the gloomiest night will wear on to a morning” (Stowe). For instance, in the scenes in which he interacts with George Harris, especially in the scene when he is being sold to a ruthless and intimidating slave owner., Uncle Tom is portrayed as a benevolent and rather passive character: “The next day, Tom and Adolph, and some half a dozen other servants, were marched down to a slave-warehouse, to await the convenience of the trader, who was going to make up a lot for auction” (Stowe). As a result, the idea of resistance as a positive force that will allow African American people to oppose slavery and discrimination, eventually claiming their humanity, dissolves.
Additionally, Stowe’s portrayal of the white protagonists in the book appears to be excessively patronizing in relation to struggles of the Black characters. For instance, the focus on George Shelby, both in his childhood and as he grows up into an adult, represents an example of how the issue of racism was pinned on specific white people in the book as opposed to the very concept of slavery as an atrocious and dehumanizing concept. Specifically, by portraying the idyllic relationships between Uncle Tom and George Shelby, both as the latter as a child and as he became a young adult, create an illusion of a positive relationship between a slave and a master, suggesting that a compromise could exist: “I’m sure, Aunt Chloe, I understand my pie and pudding privileges” (Stowe). Therefore, even though the author intended the boo to manifest the necessity to abolish slavery, there is a distinctive problem in the power dynamic between the titular character and his white owner, which subverts the positive message an ultimately devalues it.
At the same time, it is worth noting that even though Uncle Tom’s name is placed in the very title of the book, is not the central character and, therefore, is not supposed to represent all African American people in the story. Instead, the book centers a character named George who is, in fact, much more determined and willing to escape slavery, fully recognizing the horrendously unfair and inhumane premise on which it is based. Specifically, George voices some of the key ideas regarding the problem of racial relationships in the U.S.
Although the current interpretation of Uncle Tom’s character could be blamed on the misinterpretations in the staged versions, Stowe’s description of African American people in the novel makes Stowe rather racist in her representation of African Americans in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” coupled with an excessive emphasis on the contribution of white people to the abolitionist movement and the attempt at painting the picture of quote-unquote “good’ slave owners and compliant, content slaves, the specified perspective becomes particularly egregious to a modern reader. Therefore, although the novel was created with good intentions in mind and did have a profound impact on white Americans, encouraging them to accept the idea of abolitionism and condemn slavery, it also led to the emergence of several harmful stereotypes. Therefore, it could be argued that Stowe was unintentionally racist when building her protagonist and developing the plot, particularly, by placing white characters at the forefront.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Project Gutenberg, 1995.