I bought Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an impulse purchase sometime last year when my husband and I were on a Barnes & Noble date. It was one of those books I’d kind of heard of and knew I should read, but I didn’t know at the time it was instrumental in driving the end of slavery in the United States. I didn’t know Harriet Beecher Stowe, the white author, was a mother who used her intimate knowledge of maternal love to appeal to her female readers. I didn’t know Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and that Abraham Lincoln would tell Stowe upon meeting her in 1862, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” I didn’t know that when she heard those who’d been enslaved since before the founding of this country were finally made free in 1863, she danced in the streets.
My Experience Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Since George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, I’ve forced myself to confront my role as a white woman. My sister Betsy wrote a post called Fighting Racism as a White Mom in early June, and one line pierced my heart.
“I expect as we uncover truth and it takes root in our hearts, a flame for justice will begin to flicker. We will be brought low with humility along the way, but it is beautiful to think that we will rise even stronger with our brothers and sisters of every color.”
Brought low with humility along the way is the perfect description of how I feel. I’ve read several books to broaden my understanding since the loss of Mr. Floyd, but nothing has undone me like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I now understand more about the institution of slavery, knowledge I should have already had, and my mother should have had, and her mother before. It’s why I’m writing this post for other mothers like me, women who wouldn’t consider themselves racist but have given themselves the option to have very limited understanding of our nation’s dark past. We are without excuse.
I believe the Lord loves small details, and there were two involving my children that I couldn’t ignore in my reading. When I read books, I grab whatever is handy for a bookmark. A boarding pass, a scrap of paper, an envelope, anything. For this book, I happened to use a small coloring I did with my four-year-old son at his school. There was a day celebrating moms, and I joined him for this craft with a picture frame that immediately fell apart (I’m terrible at gluing). I kept the picture because it showed him and me with the designs he begged me to add, swirls and planet Earth because those were his favorite things that week. Every time I picked up my book to read, I would see this little memento of my child and me, a celebration of me being his mother, and I would be reminded of the cruelty enslaved women endured as their children were taken from them. The night I finished the book was my younger son’s third birthday, and he ended the night with an incredible meltdown due to too much fun and activity throughout the day. It was in my bed that I was able to console him, and I sat there reading Harriett Beecher Stowe’s final plea to mothers as I watched him sleep soundly beside me. Again, my heart was pierced as I thought of the mothers who weren’t allowed to be their children’s safe place and refuge. These are details I’ll forever appreciate when I think of reading this book in this season of my life.
What to Expect from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
One hesitation I had in reading this novel was my fear of graphic descriptions. Knowing slavery involved severe beatings, regular rape, and every other atrocity we can imagine, I was quick to assume the book would go into graphic detail. I was wrong. While refusing to ignore the violence of slavery, Stowe’s descriptions are written in a way that the reader can keep going. Here is just one example of how the author calls out these heinous acts and those who chose to ignore them:
“Scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear. What brother-man and brother-Christian must suffer, cannot be told us, even in our secret chamber, it so harrows up the soul! And yet, oh, my country; these things are done under the shadow of thy laws! Oh, Christ! Thy church sees them, almost in silence!”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a beautiful novel full of endearing characters as well as vile villains. There are multiple story lines going at the same time, but they all flow in a way only a gifted author can command. This isn’t a quick read, but it is a book that captures the reader’s attention quickly and refuses to let it go. In short, this isn’t a difficult book to get through; there is no trudging along and reading it simply because you should.
One thing I found captivating was seeing everything through the lens of history. Stowe wrote this in 1852 when there was no end to slavery in sight. She wrote of New Orleans, a city of horror for those who were enslaved. She shared about the Mississippi River where Black slaves were shackled on boats’ lower decks while white people made merry above. She spoke of the North and how they were as guilty as the South. She described Kentucky, Ohio, Vermont, and other states that were so different in the 1850s than how we know them today.
A Few Realities Harriet Beecher Stowe was Brave Enough to Address
The separation of families was the norm, not the exception. Those who were enslaved were considered property, period. The pain of this is a running theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as character after character shares what it was like to see their children sold, their mothers ripped away, or their husbands sent down the river. For Stowe to show both the cruelty of this practice and the humanity of its victims was monumental in changing history.
White people could do anything they wanted to those they enslaved without consequence. The testimony of a Black person was considered no testimony at all, and there were no laws against treating one’s property with absolute cruelty. Stowe calls this out repeatedly.
Those who were enslaved sought freedom, no matter how “good” they had it. One disgusting argument against freeing those who were enslaved was that they wouldn’t want to leave anyway because they had a good life under the care of a master. The truth is that any human would rather have very little but call it his own than an abundance of anything while being considered another man’s property. By the way, these “good” enslavers were rare, and Stowe addresses that in multiple ways.
Black people were every bit as intelligent and capable as their white oppressors. Harriett Beecher Stowe made it very clear that Black people were every bit as human, every bit as intelligent, and every bit as capable as any white person. To make this argument in 1852 was shocking. (Side note: There is controversy around Uncle Tom’s Cabin as it has often been labeled condescending. You will see examples of this, but it’s important to read with the understanding that while still unacceptable, people in 1852 had beliefs about the Black race that are simply untrue. We can’t ignore this painful reality.)
All of the Examples in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are True.
Every example, every character in the novel is based on true accounts. Stowe was involved in the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, and she knew many enslaved fugitives. In the book’s final chapter, she explains the inspirations for each character and each storyline. There is nothing but truth in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom, American literature’s first Black hero, is a fictional character based on Josiah Henson, a man who escaped enslavement and shared details of his life with the author. (His autobiography, Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life, is on my reading list.)
Why does reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin matter?
Did you know Carolyn Bryant, the woman who falsely accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of harassment in 1955 kept the fact that she lied a secret until 2017? Did you know the two white men who committed the heinous murder were found not guilty when they were tried before an all-white male jury, and they admitted their crime as soon as the trial ended because they knew they wouldn’t be tried again? In short, they not only tortured and murdered a boy, but they bragged about it.
Did you know that when Ruby Bridges desegregated a New Orleans school at six years old, she was met with adults calling her the n-word? Did you know white women, mothers just like me, took turns holding a small coffin with a Black baby doll inside to greet her every morning when she’d arrive at school? Did you know Ruby had nightmares because of it? Did you know she sat in a classroom with no classmates for her first year because the white families couldn’t stand the thought of their kids being near her? Who are these people, and where are they now? Well Ms. Bridges is only 65 years old, and this just took place in 1960, so a lot of the people involved in her torment are still alive.
These two examples seem like they were long ago, but each was within my parents’ lifetimes. The further we get from slavery, the more tempted we can be to think everything has been resolved. When a murder like that of George Floyd takes place, white people are surprised while Black people aren’t. We need to be humbled, and taking a hard look at history’s crimes against the Black race is part of that. I don’t have answers as to what will heal this nation and end the cruelty against our Black brothers and sisters, but I do know facing the realities of our past will be part of it. As a mother, I commit to learn and to teach my children. Black history is American history, and it will not be ignored in my home.