African American slavery was once rampant in the United States. Because of that, several literary works tackling racism emerged. Probably the most popular literary work of them all is the Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It once outsold the Bible; that’s how popular it was back in the day. This paper will discuss Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its main character Uncle Tom and why it has become an epithet.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
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 renowned book started off as a serialized novel inspired by a real life person, debuting in an abolitionist newspaper. Harriet Stowe expected that she only needs to write at least 3 installments but it grew to 41 weekly installments. The following year, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published as a two-volume book with 312 pages each. 3,000 copies were sold on its first day, 300,000 in the United States on its first year, and 1.5 million copies in a year in Great Britain.
Before long, Uncle Tom’s Cabin achieved popularity in the North but received backlash from the South where the book was deemed controversial and banned in most places. The readers in the North appreciated being introduced to the actual horrors of slavery. This caused the abolitionists to express their sheer indignation against what’s happening in the plantations in America. Meanwhile in the South, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was met with outrage and was branded as an exaggerated and manipulated account.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 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 an 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 Uncle Tom’s Cabin is 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. At one point, Uncle Tom was used as a slur to insult Black people who are willing to obey white people without question as it seemed he is not at war with his inferior position.
A thorough examination of Uncle Tom, 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’s Cabin’s success, 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 today that the term “Uncle Tom” can actually stand on its own, independent of Stowe’s novel, but for a dishonorable reason far from what Stowe intends.
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 in understanding Uncle Tom’s character. 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 pious main character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the context of racism, Uncle Tom is a slur directed at blacks perceived to be too eager to please white folk and/or black people who are willing to betray other blacks to gain the favor of white people.
Pertinently, people who use the Uncle Tom slur are most of the time ignorant of the literary character and have not even read the novel itself. The distortion of Uncle Tom’s character in theater and movies may be irreversible at this point. The Uncle Tom from the 1851 novel may be lost forever as people now rely on mediums like film instead of opting to read a two-volume novel. Therefore, triumphantly immortalizing the twisted version of the once admired character.
Uncle Tom is seemingly of good character based on his judgments and actions in the novel. How Uncle Tom, a fictional character that exposes the evils of slavery and racism in American literature evolved into a racist slur is certainly through no fault of the author Harriet Beecher Stowe. 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. Successfully corrupting, perverting, and demeaning the historical significance of a brilliant literary gem with it in the process.
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Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. John P. Jewett and Company, 1852.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” 23 July, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Uncle-Toms-Cabin. Accessed 16 December 2020.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/harriet-beecher-stowe/uncle-toms-cabin. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.