Sunday, February 24, 2013

Will the Real Uncle Tom Please Stand Up?

I first heard about Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, when I was a child.  Until now, I had neither read the book nor seen a theatrical rendition of it.  Until now, when I heard the term "Uncle Tom" used in a derogatory manner, I knew precisely what it meant.  At least, I thought I knew exactly what it meant.

This was my utterly erroneous image of Uncle Tom:

An aged, stooped, weakling of an emasculated black slave, who would betray other slaves just to prove his loyalty to his master.  A slave who favored his master's praise over the welfare of his fellow enslaved blacks.

Boy, was I wrong.  So wrong, in fact, that I have to fight the urge to apologize repeatedly to Uncle Tom.

So why do people think so poorly of this title character?  Because of the minstrel shows that rose from Mrs. Stowe's Magnum Opus.  The minstrel shows (and other theatrical works from that era) portray Uncle Tom as the simpering weakling that is our current image of the character.  These versions of Uncle Tom are impostors.  In actuality, the character described in the novel is a tall, muscular, Christlike man of around 40 years old.  A man who gives his own life to protect those of his fellow slaves.  Uncle Tom was strong and principled.  He is the sort of person that we should all strive to be.  As a matter of fact, the New York Times did a story on him.

Rather than continue in our ignorance, we should all read Uncle Tom's Cabin.  There are at least two abridged versions available and the original is available for free, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project and Librivox, as an ebook and an audiobook, respectively.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is a difficult book to readmostly because the author did not sugar-coat very much.  As a black woman reading the novel, I experienced simultaneous feelings of indignation, fury, sadness, pride, and pain.  But this story is part of the history of the United States and all people living in the U.S. should endeavor to know the country's past.


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