Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852
Whew, boy. This is going to be a tough post to write. I have mulled, contemplated, ruminated and thought on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and what I should say about it for close to a year now.
I regularly put myself in the position of weighing the righteousness of moral positions taken by Victorian authors. It’s a strange, shaky task. And I’m hard to please. Treatises on the rights of women (i.e. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) are nowhere near feminist enough for me. Every book is objectionably classist or racist.
Sometimes, I tell myself that I should be lenient because the authors are trying their best at their own levels of consciousness. Harriet Beecher Stowe abhorred slavery and wanted Northerners to advocate for abolition, a laudable goal. I can’t fault her intentions. Similarly, when Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist he championed the cause of impoverished orphans. Does that excuse the appalling anti-Semitism in his novel? No. Absolutely not. Don’t tell me “it was a different time.” Bigotry is bigotry—in any era.
Novels can and have raised awareness and built up sentiment and political will that lead to real change and improvement in social justice. Sometimes those same novels kick down when they mean to pull up.
Are you waiting for me to talk about Django Unchained? I’m getting there. But, before I do, let me state two problems I have with Uncle Tom’s Cabin that aren’t critical to the comparison I will draw:
- Stowe’s depiction of slaves reinforced negative stereotypes that persisted for generations.
- Stowe dwells too much on the misfortunes of a woman who is a “quadroon” or only one quarter black. Stowe depicts her as beautiful and almost white looking and therefore deserving of compassion, which is a bigoted attitude.
Onto Django. I have seen Django Unchained three or four times. I enjoy it. Like Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill and Deathproof; Django is a satisfying revenge fantasy. Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre offers viewers ample opportunities to drown their white or male guilt in fountains of Nazi or male abuser or slaver blood. And it feels great. We chuckle gleefully at Tarantino’s depiction of the Klan as flaccid and ridiculous. But, they weren’t impotent clowns; they were vigilantes more powerful than law enforcement. We, the viewers are impotent. We can’t undo slavery. We can’t prevent the Holocaust. We can’t give every female victim of violence the ability or opportunity to defend or avenge herself. So, we fantasize. We watch a movie that takes us on a fun romp through slavery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is decidedly not a fun romp through American slavery. However, like Tarantino, Stowe presents a white person’s idealized vision of how a slave should respond to persecution. She certainly doesn’t advocate blowing away the denizens of an entire plantation with an assortment of guns. Instead, Stowe venerates Uncle Tom’s pious and long-suffering Christianity. He gives all his troubles over to Jesus and forgives his masters. Tom responds to increasing hardship with increasing forbearance and faith. When his owners sell him to a horrifyingly abusive plantation, he mildly accepts his fate. Tom reaches the zenith of his characterization as a devout and worthy Christian when he persuades another slave, a victim of serial rape who has had her children sold away from her, not to free herself from her torture. She wants to escape by killing her abuser or by killing herself, but Tom’s silver tongue and the shining example of his tolerant Christian suffering convince her to just bear it all.
Honestly, if I have to choose between the white director’s fantasy of a heroic slave’s violent vengeance and the white author’s advocacy of Christian meekness in the face of intolerable suffering, I would have to choose the violent avenger. Who is Harriet Beecher Stowe to suggest that slaves ought to forgive and tolerate the sins of their masters? Who is she to reject the rightness of an enslaved and abused woman’s urge to fight back?
Do you see what I mean in terms of the difficulty of judging the moral rectitude of bygone days? I have enough trouble just watching a movie without getting outraged over social injustice. My point here isn’t that Harriet Beecher Stowe or Quentin Tarantino are reprehensible. My point, really, is that both of these works of art attempt to answer the question “How should slaves respond to their victimization, ideally?” Which is a question with no right answer and not one I’m entirely comfortable with white authors or directors answering.
The question I’m trying to answer is “Sydney, why are you so weirded out by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Django Unchained and why are you more weirded out by Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Violence is bad, right?” Here are the answers: 1) Yes, violence is bad. But, don’t stand in a position of privilege and tell someone else not to free herself from unbearable and unending suffering by any means possible. 2) I am not Christian and not of the Victorian Era. So, Christian forbearance and Victorian morality don’t appeal to me. In the face of cruelty, I would rather fight than endure. 3) While I enjoy a revenge fantasy, I don’t think it does us any good, culturally, to go on a fun romp through slavery. It does us better to look slavery right in the face, to reel in horror at the atrocities inflicted by slavers and by the Klan, to acknowledge that the Klan mentality has not died out, to find institutionalized racism and fight it in all its forms.
We can’t go back in time and dismember slave owners, but we can fight. We can fight for better schools for minority children. We can fight to end discriminatory voting laws. We can fight for police accountability. We can fight. Django is fake, but the fight is real and we can fight it.