Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

It took me two and a half weeks to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the book that Abraham Lincoln said started the American Civil War.  [Actual Lincoln quote: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” – November 1862 when Stowe was introduced to President Lincoln.

As I was reading this book, I stopped many times to reflect on this or that passage.  I stopped to read other reviews of this book across various sites on the internet.  I wanted to know what the present-day dialog is/has been about this important historical book.  What I found in my cursory research was disconcerting.  I read that this book was poorly written and that if it did not have historical significance it would not be spoken of, or even thought of today.  To me, this is the greatest oxymoron.

Turning away from these pernicious reviews, I continued to read with an open mind.  I cried.  My heart ached.  I had many a restless night complete with tossing and turning.  I resorted to my childhood practice of having a cup of hot calming tea before bed.  Why?  So that I could finish this book with the minimum amount of personal distress.

Stowe does have passages that are a tad clumsy yet these few lines do not detract from the overall precision, research and the sharing of the prevailing then-current perspectives of various factions of American society in the late 1800’s.  Stowe functioned very much like a journalist in compiling first-hand accounts that she herself witnessed, or someone close to her had witnessed and coalesced these factual real-life incidents into a fictionalized narrative directed towards forcing open the minds of an extremely insensate audience.

Stowe pours it on thickly in places.  The Christian faith is both maligned and praised in various sections of the book to make definite points to specific audiences.  Indifference was the bane and greatest sin in Stowe’s eyes which is embodied in the character of Augustine St. Clare.  His character shows us the effects of caring but doing nothing to change the status quo.

The character of Topsy, the little Negro child who was raised by slave traders without mother, father, or any family around her to raise her with the sole purpose of ‘bringing her to market’ is a study in the dehumanizing of a person so that they have not feeling, no hope, no spark of life or joy within themselves.  So much so that this character, felt she was wicked and could do no better than her wicked ways.  Stowe went out of her way to characterize all of the different point of view to ensure that no one in America at that time could weasel out of their beliefs or vindicate themselves in any way.

The thing that bugged me most about this book is the prevailing viewpoint about the book’s central character…Uncle Tom.  In the Black Community, when a person is tagged as an Uncle Tom that person is a shuckin’ and jivin’ person who is doing his/her best to ingratiate themselves in an obsequious manner to gain the favor of White people be it their bosses, authority figures, or to gain advantage in some way.  Being an Uncle Tom is a negative, self-hating insult to be hurled at a person of color.

Yet, when you read Stowe’s book, the character of Uncle is a hero.  In the end, he changes the people around him due to his unswerving faith in his religious beliefs.  He does not do the bidding of his cruel slave master (the final one towards the end of the book).  Tom does not acquiesce and beat other slaves as his owner wanted him to do.  Tom does not change his beliefs one iota even in the face of the direst threats from his owner (including being burned alive).  Tom was not disrespectful, forceful, nor obsequious to his vindictive mean-hearted owner in any way.  Tom had an inner light and courage that was borne of his faith in something greater than him.  It was this faith that saved and made Tom different and ultimately victorious over the bonds of slavery.  While he died a slave, his mind was free, his soul was free and this touched and changed those around him.

Yet, I understand why people of color chose to defile the heroic character of Uncle Tom in later years (especially during the 60’s and 70’s!).  Who wants to take a beating to the death with your faith being the only thing that saves you?  Who wants to hold dear to a faith that allows you to be downtrodden, abused and defiled when you could instead stand up like a man, and a woman should and fight.  This was what the Black Power movement was all about.  The Uncle Tom character is the very antithesis of what Blacks of the 60’s and 70’s were all about (remember, we were no longer Negroes…)

Okay, so this review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is not as much of a review as it is a commentary and the invitation to open up a dialogue one that is long overdue:

How can we move forward and exorcise the vestiges of a 250-year reign of abuse, terror and hard labor on the slaves brought over during the Middle Passage?

Because this question, my friends, has yet to be truly answered.  However, the first step to answering this question – which needs to be done on an individual basis! – is to gain a context of where we were, so we can see where we are today.  Hence, the idea of Sankofa (from Ghana, West Africa) – the need to look back in order to move forward.

Sankofa Bird_10 9 2015

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