By Chet Yarbrough
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
By Harriet Beecher Stowe
Narrated by Richard Allen
The meaning of words changes with the generations. An “Uncle Tom” became a pejorative description of any oppressed minority that accepts slavery and maltreatment as a God given burden, a condition of natural life. (See “Freedom and Equality”.)
The rise of black face minstrels and college party jokers carry through to the 20th century. The “Uncle Tom…” in Harry Beecher’s book is no minstrel and no joke.
In the context of the 20th and 21st centuries Beecher’s book is taken out of context.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is written in an era, brutally described by Frederick Douglas (see “Frederick Douglas”), when human beings are traded as futures commodities. Douglas, a great American black leader, who personally knew Stowe, praises her for writing this book.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the slave trade lines the pockets of slave traders, plantation owners, and industrialists. Black degradation is reinforced by laws of the land; i.e. slave owners could shackle, whip, sell, rape, and murder slaves with little censure and no penalty. In that context, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom…” is a Black Saint.
This is not only a book about slavery; i.e. it is a book about humankind and how abominably one ethnic group can treat another. It is a story told many times in history and in the present day.
The apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln having said “So this is the little lady who started this great war” is undoubtedly un-true, but for the 1850’s, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a revolutionary book used to fuel the abolitionist cause in America and around the world.
The role of religion has a mixed history in the story of slavery. Religion plays roles in advancing and abolishing slavery. Religion serves as a refuge for slaves by preaching the gospel of forgiveness and an afterlife while many Catholic and protestant religions promote slavery as a biblical right of the white race.
The irony of religion’s followers is that it mollifies Black resistance for those who believe in a Divine Creator. At the same time, biblical writings are used by white supremacists to justify unequal treatment.
Some religions rose above religion’s ugly endorsement of slavery; most did not. Quakers in the 1850s fought slavery in the United States, as is shown in Stowe’s story. Some Quaker households became a refuge for runaway slaves.
At bottom, Stowe shows commerce and greed are pillars of slavery. The farmers, businesses, and industrialists that strove to improve their bottom line directly or indirectly abetted slavery, just as the temptation of cheap labor in China and India seduce today’s American entrepreneurs and consumers.
More broadly, one realizes human nature is good and evil. Most members of society succumb to temptation in life. No human is purely good or evil but a mixture. Human nature blurs the line between right and wrong because every human is tempted by money, power, and/or prestige.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is as relevant today as it was in the 1850s.