Racism Essays & Paper Examples

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Research Paper On Uncle Tom's Cabin

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No other antislavery work is more profoundly influential with regard to slavery and racism in America than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is universally recognized as a literary gem that became a vehicle of social change that put in motion the abolitionist cause in the years leading up to the US Civil War, roots of which lie in question of slavery. The book, as noble as its purpose was at the time, has become rather controversial in recent decades, not because of the content but because of the notions it planted on the country’s consciousness. While one should want to view the novel as the honest depiction of the moral erosion and loss of identity that comes with slavery and racism, it can also be asserted that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is oddly instrumental in easing into social consciousness racial stereotypes that would run aplenty in subsequent works, and later on the reason will be explored. While the literary quality and purpose of the novel are beyond question, the indelible influence of its main character unconsciously and inadvertently reinforced racist notions (i.e. Uncle Tom epithet) to the point that its historical significance is almost eclipsed.  

A thorough examination of the novel’s lead character is necessary to reach a solid understanding as to how “Uncle Tom” has become immortalized and eventually became a racial epithet. Analysis can also showcase the extent of Stowe’s literary genius, imagination, and originality. One can deduce that the character of Uncle Tom in particular, the conscientious and benevolent elderly slave, is imbued with such originality that the concept of an “Uncle Tom” became public property almost immediately thereafter. Much like the wise old man, the damsel in distress, or even the mad scientist in literature and cinema, Uncle Tom has indeed become a trope, a stock character, and a racial slur for subservient blacks, all at once.

How did it come to be? Due to the magnitude of Uncle Tom the character, it was and still is abused and imitated in literature and other art; the popularity of which can be attributed to the explosive amalgamation of the novel’s realistic plot, the issue of race, the shame of slavery, and the timeliness of publication. And still so colossal is the character’s impact on society is that the term “Uncle Tom” today can actually stand on its own, independent of Stowe’s novel, but for a dishonourable reason. In fact, it would not be a bit of a stretch to say that it more likely entered colloquialism as a slur, and not as the supposedly noble character. Uncle Tom has evolved from a query purely concerning literature to one of semantics, and ethics. For the sake of perspective, Uncle Tom the character in literature epitomizes the moral fight against racism and slavery while liberal use of the Uncle Tom label in the colloquial context is simply ignorant, demonstrative of lack of historical perspective. It must be noted that Stowe is completely blameless of the unseemly evolution of its definition.

For purposes of illumination, the “Cinderella analogy” is helpful. Although the mention of Cinderella naturally elicits imaginings of the fairy tale, the context of the word has drastically changed in the past century. A “Cinderella story” today denotes a person who unexpectedly achieves success despite humble beginnings, similar to the story of the young mythical lass, but its new meaning does not eradicate its fairy tale roots. In the same way, the role of context is important due to “Uncle Tom” being an otherwise innocent term; the intention with which it is used determines its intent, whether it borders on racism or not. In literature, Uncle Tom is simply the character in the novel. In the context of racism, Uncle Tom is a slur directed at blacks perceived to be too eager to please white folk and/or those blacks who seem to betray other blacks to gain the favour of whites. Pertinently, people who use the Uncle Tom slur are most of the time ignorant of the literary character. 

How Uncle Tom, a fictional character that exposes the evils of slavery and racism in American literature,  evolved into a racist slur, certainly through no fault of Stowe’s. Which begs the question, how did Uncle Tom make its way to the racist vocabulary? The answer is simple. As strong as Uncle Tom’s Cabin literary and moral power is, racism is of equal, or maybe even greater strength. Thus, even if slavery in the United States ceased to exist more than a century ago, prejudice and racism continue to plague the country, corrupting, perverting, and demeaning the historical significance of a brilliant literary gem with it in the process. 

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