The Novel that Changed the World

“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” Abraham Lincoln reportedly said upon first meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 200th birthday was this past Monday.  When it comes to literature changing lives, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the gold standard for what is possible.

As CUNY American Studies professor David Reynolds notes in a recent New York Times article,

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.

In his article Reynolds also explains why popular misconceptions about the work have arisen and how “Uncle Tom” came to be used as a derogatory term, especially by black authors and activists in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Apparently the image of a meek man who acquiesces to white oppression grew out of the popular “Uncle Tom” plays that became tremendously popular in the latter half of the 19th century and on into the 20th.  White audiences wouldn’t countenance someone with the fire of Stowe’s Uncle Tom—Lynching was systematically used to intimidate such men—so he and Eva had to be toned down.  “As the story moved from the book to the stage, Reynolds writes,

Stowe’s revolutionary themes were drowned in sentimentality and spectacle. Eva’s death was frequently a syrupy scene in which the actress was hauled heavenward by rope or piano wire against a backdrop of angels and billowing clouds. Uncle Tom, meanwhile, was often presented as a stooped, obedient old fool, the model image of a submissive black man.

Even without the theater version, however, I believe the book might have suffered the same fate.  During the period of black militancy, many blacks were interested in working separately rather than through coalitions with whites.  The mere fact that Stowe was a white writing on behalf of blacks was enough to disqualify her.  Therefore, they seized on “Uncle Tom” as an epithet to hurl at those who advocated a less confrontational path.

In retrospect, some of the “so-called” Uncle Toms—Jackie Robinson, Louie Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks—are the ones we remember as having pushed civil rights forward whereas few now know the names of militants such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, and Fred Hampton.  Uncle Tom, especially the Uncle Tom of the novel, looks much better to us now.

Maybe the Civil War would have happened without Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  But its gripping characters and story made is easier for Lincoln to marshal the sustained support he needed for a long and difficult engagement. And without the North winning the Civil War, slavery would have hung on for a lot longer than it did, not only in the United States but in the rest of the western hemisphere.

Don’t underestimate novels.

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  • farida

    I should preface this by saying I know very little about American politics and history and I haven’t really ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While I certainly believe in the transformative powers of literature, I no longer really believe that any one person is responsible for the change in the condition of an entire people. I think real change requires the courage, genius, support, wisdom of more than one individual.

    Perhaps I also recoil from the idea of a single white person “saving” black folk. And while I appreciate the words of W.E. Dubois about Harriet Beecher Stowe, they still make me a little nervous. Uncle Tom’s Cabin didn’t exist in a vacuum. I know what you meant Robin, but even the words of Du Bois have a way of rendering invisible the actions black people took to ensure their emancipation. The best lines of poetry that I can come up with at this time, of how I felt reading that post, are from Tony Hoagland’s somewhat controversial poem “The Change”. The poem is about a tennis match between a female black player and a white player. The particular line I refer to, describes the way the black player hits the ball:

    “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
    down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
    like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.”

    Robin, as always you gave me lots to reflect on.

  • Robin Bates

    It’s wonderful to hear from you again, Farida. I’ve been thinking of you recently as I follow the news in Uganda. My friend Rachel Kranz brought up some of your same concerns in response to the post. She notes that Uncle Tom was based on the slave Josiah Henson who for years chose not to escape (and even convinced fellow slaves not to escape) before he’d finally had enough and got his wife and 13 kids to Canada–which is to say, there may be too much of the heroic martyr (as opposed to the slave who fights back) in the character. So Stowe does bear some responsibility for the characterizations that emerged and she was in fact criticized by some blacks at the time, including (I believe) Frederick Douglass. To her credit, Rachel says, Stowe took the black criticisms to heart and made adjustments in Dred, her next book. Which is to say, she was willing to examine her own prejeudices.

    I think it was important in the black power movement to move away from a liberal paternalism (such as one finds in, say, To Kill a Mockingbird). So yes, you are right to recoil as you do. I think where some of my criticism is coming from is that some members of the black power movement were naive (in the cases of some, Rachel says, “criminally naive”) in thinking that they could go it alone without white partners–and as a result they ended up getting themselves killed. They may have seen King as an Uncle Tom, but King had a better grasp of who had the guns.

    Pragmatism vs. idealism, it’s always a tough call. Lincoln didn’t call for the end of slavery right away because he was trying to hold on to border states like Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas. The strategy worked for the first four in that they never seceded. He didn’t sign the Emancipation Proclamation until two years into the war, for a combination of pragmatic and idealistic reasons. So I can understand black frustration with both Stowe and Lincoln and, for that matter, with people like King, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and Louie Armstrong. As I get older, I find myself more sympathetic with smart resistance, even though I know one needs the (not always smart) youthful idealism of dreamers to shake us out of just making do.

  • Rachel Kranz

    Since I’m quoted in Robin’s post, I’ll join in the discussion!

    First, my use of the term “criminally naive” was only about the idea that Black people in America could resist through all-Black violence, specifically, because (as King knew), any Black violence or threat of violence would be met by far greater violence and brutality from majority white society. Nonviolent resisters might be sprayed with fire hoses, but violent rebels would be sprayed with bullets. Not to understand this–to overestimate what 10% of the U.S. population could have accomplished by force versus the other 90%–was a criminally naive idea–or would have been, if anyone had directly acted upon it.

    In fact, no one really did. No organized Black violence was ever propagated or seriously advocated during the post-slavery era (maybe there were one or two tiny fringe groups). There was DISorganized Black violence in the form of rioting, which was often romanticized by the Black Power movement, and there were revolutionary slogans, like, “Power lies in the barrel of a gun” (a dangerous slogan when the other side has all the guns!), and there was post-facto celebration of the riots (“Burn, Baby, Burn”) with no real effort to inspire new riots–the slogan was a wish and a celebration, not a call to action.

    In fact, you could argue–I probably would–that without the fear engendered by both the radical slogans and the disorganized violence, many of the Civil Rights advances on a national level would never have taken place. A similar thing happened in Jamaica in the 1830s: although none of the many slave revolts in that majority Black country ever succeeded, British imperialists were frightened enough by the spectre of Black violence to decide for emancipation. Likewise, Malcolm X reportedly said something similar to King, that fear of Malcolm would force white society to accede to King–who was considered a dangerous radical in his own right, hence his surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover. In fact, FBI documents reveal that the biggest fear Hoover had was that the Black Power movement and King’s movement would somehow unite, and a great deal of the FBI’s efforts were directed towards keeping that unity from ever happening.

    Is it naive to think that Black people can achieve something without white partners? That’s a harder question. There’s the psychological wish for independence, embodied in movements like Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement: the wish that Black people could simply take their destiny into their own hands without help or approval from the people who had the power to oppress them. THere’s also the political issue (which came up in the women’s movement as well), of Black people being in fact subordinate in most political groups–white men did the talking, theorizing, and decision-making, while others (particularly in the New Left) felt silenced and excluded without knowing why. (The Old Left, in my opinion, had a better track record for approaching racism in a structual way, but lots of Black nationalists and people like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright did not see it that way.)

    I personally see it from the opposite side. As a white person, I don’t believe any political movement that wants to transform my country or my world can succeed without not just the participation but the active leadership of people of color. It’s been historically difficult for white people to take leadership from Black people, as Obama’s presidency shows, though his election also shows that the concept now is at least thinkable. There, I think, we should credit the many generations of people of all colors who fought for emancipation and for Black leadership in a variety of movements, who laid the groundwork for new possibilities that have yet to be fully realized.

    With regard to the Emancipation Proclamation, that’s a much longer story! And one I’ll hopefully tell (at least partly) in my novel. Eric Foner has a new book on Lincoln that I”m eager to read for more insight into that topic…

    I could write pages on this fascinating topic, but this is probably enough for today! THANKS to both Robin & Farida for stimulating my thoughts further!

  • farida

    Thank you Robin and Rachel for the detail!

    It was interesting to gain some background to how the character of Uncle Tom was developed and also to appreciate it within a wider historical context. And we all appreciate that it’s not so much a question of pitting the races against each other but more a case of the struggle of between different sets of beliefs. My recoil, Robin, was not entirely about race, but how easily we forget the significance of battles and protests that are not so well documented. For example, the “Freedom Riders” you wrote about a few weeks ago. I think I’m more precious about the idea of “white saviors” because I once had a British teacher (religious education!!) tell me that South Africa would not have ended Apartheid if the white population had not “wanted” it to happen; and that British colonialism would not have ended without the British “willingness” to end it. Her emphasis was on the idea was that we as Africans were beholden to the Brits for their goodwill and their civility and goodness in ending the oppression of black people. I was only 16 but I took real umbrage at her assertion. Today, I understand that change often requires a negotiation between the oppressor and oppressed, especially when the oppressor is in the majority or extremley powerful(in military power and econoimic power), but her emphasis was negating the role that indegenous people played in the fight against apartheid and colonial rule.

    For those in power it’s a question of changing policy, maybe losing one’s political position and control of assets, but for the people on the ground it’s very often a matter of life and death and livelihood. And for those fighting oppression, the negotiations are complex. One of my grand –uncles who passed away last year, was interred in a camp by the British when he and other young people demonstrated against colonialism. He grew up educated by British missionaries, attended law school in Britain and fought against British rule. But after independence he was exiled by his former compatriots and lived in America and his children were educated in Britain.

    Rachel made a point about “the psychological wish [for some black people]: the wish that Black people could simply take their destiny into their own hands without help or approval from the people who had the power to oppress them”. I think today we all realise that our lives are irrevocably connected, and I think that’s a good thing. But I think outside of the American historical and social context, the issues about black people controlling their destinies without help from people who oppressed them is still somehow relevant in Africa, not so much in the psychological sense, but in an economic sense. Many oppressive regimes in Africa have used the residual inequities that progressed from colonialism as an excuse to turn away from Western support and turn to support from Asia. This brings with it new complexities and continued problems of the economic disadvantaging of indigenous people.

    As a black person the historical perspective you and Rachel provided is interesting and something I will explore further. As an African, it raises interesting questions of how political systems can be transformed and how ideological changes are developed. I found the spin that Rachel put on the issue intriguing, that a political movement in America (or the West?) cannot transform a society without the active participation and leadership of people of colour. I’m not sure I agree, Rachel, although I wish it were so. And I think while indeed “smart” revolutions and activism are the answer, I think Rachel raises an important point, that the violent protests (however sporadic) do have the effect of having those in power focus their minds on the issues, as it were. No one wants to live with the constant threat of violence and unpredictability.

    The current struggles on the African continent (especially North Africa and the Middle East) against oppressive regimes, the concern on the African continent about a new “colonialism” by Asia, and China especially, (as these same regimes give away vast areas of African land to Asia), and the prevailing abuses of human rights and extreme poverty, mean that many of us are thinking how to re-negotiate our relationships to our countries. How do you change violent oppressive regimes without resorting to violence? How do you exist under oppressive regimes? How do you remain uncorrupt in very corrupt societies? How do you engender change from within the prevailing political systems and ideologies? What pragmatic choice does one make, what uncomfortable alliances are necessary?

    Lots to think about!

  • Rachel Kranz

    Farida, I loved your response. Here are some further thoughts:

    1. The political solutions for Africans and African Americans are completely different, because Africans are a majority in their own country, while African Americans are a minority in theirs.

    2. I think we have to distinguish between white people like Botha, who negotiated a peaceful end to apartheid because he had to, and white people like Joe Slovo, who fought alongside Mandela to end apartheid. Race isn’t the issue–partisanship is, even though the partisanship is in service of ending racism! Reluctant concessions are one thing; half-hearted allies are something else; but you can also have active participants who share in your struggle–and, then, also, accept your leadership, as, e.g., Joe Slovo did, or as civil rights figures like Pete Seeger or the people at Highlander Folk School did. I find your teacher’s remarks so offensive because, as you say, they negate what Africans did. Including white allies who fought WITH Africans isn’t the same thing as praising leaders who made reluctant concessions. (However, I do put Harriet Beecher Stowe more in the “ally/comrade” camp than in the “reluctant concessions” camp!)

    3. For Africans, I think the unwillingness to accept U.S. help is less psychological than political/economic. U.S. help is usually in the form of loans that ultimately benefit U.S. banks and corporations far more than Africans. I don’t know what kind of aid and investment Asian nations offer, but the suspicion of U.S. aid isn’t necessarily racial, even if people also speak of it that way. Most U.S. foreign aid requires money to be spent to hire U.S. consultants at U.S. wages; to buy goods and services from U.S. corporations at U.S. prices; and to borrow money from U.S. institutions at U.S. interest rates. Rejecting that model doesn’t have to mean rejecting white people, just rejecting the imperialism that so far has had a mainly white face. Whether it will now have an Asian face instead, I don’t know, since I’m ignorant of that type of aid (and of European aid), but theoretically, they could be equally problematic.

    3. The reason I say that no political movement in the U.S. (or the West) can succeed without the active participation and therefore leadership of people of color is because race is the single biggest issue that divides people who could potentially be allies. Race is the issue used to get poor and middle-class white people to identify with rich white people rather than to bond with working people of all colors and fight for change that would benefit us all. Race was the issue used to entice “middle America” to support McCain and Palin, even though McCain and Palin’s policies were bad for just about any American who wasn’t rich. Race is the issue used to confuse people about where their true interests lie. It isn’t the only issue, but it’s a big one. Till white people get over it, they won’t be able to make real progress. And “getting over it” means accepting leadership from Black people (and other people of color) as well as white ones, because without Black leadership, you won’t have Black participation, and without Black participation, you can’t create real change.

    Even the gay rights movement is having to recognize this, as Black ministers are being used to encourage African Americans to vote Republican instead of Democrat over the issue of gay marriage. This makes it far harder for Democrats to support gay marriage, as they otherwise might. If the gay rights movement had been better about involving people of color in leadership–if they had recognized the centrality of race to any American progressive movement–they would have their own African-American national figures to combat the ones being used to oppose gay marriage. But too much of the gay rights movement remained comfortable in its white isolation and privilege–and now they are paying the price.

    Likewise, the environmental movement in the U.S. has been largely white, and it too is paying the price. An interracial environmental movement might be able to define issues in a way that would appeal to a broader spectrum of Americans of all colors, and might be able to win more political power.

    This is all U.S. stuff, though. When it comes to Uganda or the rest of Africa, I’m completely baffled about what to say! I look forward to hearing more of your insights and welcome any suggestions about what to read or where to start thinking!

  • farida

    You’ve given me so much to think about. I appreciate the points you made about why people of colour are an integral and necessary part in effecting change in western societies. I hadn’t thought of it in the contexts you raise. You are right about the whole issue of ‘strings attached aid’ to the continent. But, it’s no different with the new ‘contracts” with Asia. Outside of the issues of foreign influence and economic power in Africa, I think that African nations’ biggest problems are their governments’ ineptitude and lack of vision, cultures of corruption and impunity and the problem of tribalism.

    I’m afraid that when it comes to history, politics, sociology, economics etc. I am the wrong person to ask for book recommendations. I’ve learned so much from you!

    The novels I will recommend are probably ones you might have read: “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Adichie, “Ancestor Stones” by Aminatta Forna, “Half of A Yellow Sun” (which I have just started) also by Chimamanda Adichie and “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Darambenga. I chose them because they, hopefully, individuate the “African story”. I’ve always been bewildered and frustrated by the way in which so many people in the West (even some educated peers of mine) think of Africa as this one homogenous entity. I also chose them because the stories are framed and shaped within historical and political contexts. But, mostly I chose these novels because they tell the stories of women.


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