By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Richard Allen
There is an apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln having said “So this is the little lady who started this great war”; undoubtedly not true, but for the 1850’s, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a revolutionary book that fueled the abolitionist cause in America and around the world. This is not only a book about slavery; i.e. it is a book about humankind.
The meaning of words changes with the generations. An Uncle Tom became a pejorative description of any oppressed minority that accepts slavery and maltreatment as a God-given burden, a condition of natural life. In the context of the 20th and 21st centuries that seems a fair definition but it is taken out of the context of an ugly era that is brutally described by Frederick Douglas (see “Standing Up”) and Stowe in “real time”; i.e. a time when human beings were traded as futures commodities, lining the pockets of slave traders, plantation owners, and industrialists. Black degradation was reinforced by laws of the land; i.e. slave owners could shackle, whip, sell, rape, and murder slaves with little censure and no penalty; in that context, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character, Uncle Tom, is a Black Saint.
The role of religion has a mixed history in Stowe’s story of slavery. Religion plays roles in advancing and abolishing slavery. Religion serves as a refuge (many would say an opiate) for slaves by preaching the gospel of forgiveness and an afterlife while many Catholic and protestant religions promoted slavery as a biblical right of the white race. The irony of these teachings is that they mollified Black resistance while justifying white supremacy. Some churches rose above religion’s ugly endorsement of slavery. Quakers in the 1850s fought slavery in the United States and, in Stowe’s story, became a refuge for runaway slaves.
At bottom, Stowe shows commerce and greed are pillars of slavery. The farmers, businesses, and industrialists that strove to improve their bottom line directly or indirectly abetted slavery. Just as the temptation of cheap labor in China and India seduces world’ entrepreneurs to serve the world, slavery seduces Southern American States to serve Northern States and Western Europe. More broadly, one realizes human nature is good and evil. Humans will always succumb to temptation in life. No human is purely good or evil but a mixture that blurs the line between right and wrong because every human is tempted by money, power, and prestige; true today and yesterday.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is as relevant today as it was in the 1850s; the biggest difference is today’s slaves wear the chains of poverty.