A New Understanding of An Uncle Tom

Yes, another classic book that I had never read has fallen. I finally read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and was expecting… well, I don’t really know what I was expecting. It had come up in conversation during my school days but only to mention the overall theme – not much detail. It was sold to my teenage mind as a book that made the case for and helped foster support for the abolitionist movement.

Long time reader know that I love period piece movies and TV – well, turns out I love period books just as much. There is something altogether powerful about learning the thoughts of the writing in the language of their time. It instantly moves you to that era and the words become that much stronger.

“But now what? Why, now comes my master, takes me right away from my work, and my friends, and all I like, and grinds me down into the very dirt! And why? Because, he says, I forgot who I was; he says, to teach me that I am only a nigger! [. . .] And all this your laws give him power to do, in spite of God or man..”

Speaking of language, these days, calling someone “an Uncle Tom” is a common phrase that seems to have changed in meaning over the years. The character of Uncle Tom in the book wasn’t a snitch or sell-out.  He wasn’t even overly subservient. He was a very positive character that showed character, honesty, loyalty and dependability. I can completely understand how the character came to represent a sell-out because he wasn’t rebellious and frankly, accepted his place in society. Today’s incarnation of Uncle Tom however, really seems to sell Stowe’s character short.

The thing that really got to me about the book was the callous discussions between the slave owner and slave trader. The casual conversation where they refer to these slaves as property and taking less interest in them than cattle or dogs. To treat branding or beating as commonplace shows how they weren’t viewed as even human in those times. Yes, we all know how it was from those history lessons, but it is so much more powerfully explained in this book.

Stowe was masterful in conveying the absolute horror of the slave trade through her description of the separation of mothers from their children. To see these situations through the eyes of the people who lived it is even more impactful than movies I’ve seen on the subject.

Sure, we all understand slavery intellectually, but this book makes it personal. Harriet Beecher Stowe takes it from a subject that we discussed in junior high history class to the affront it is on our basic decency.

Color aside, I caught my mind wandering to the current condition of wage slavery. No, I do not agree with raising the minimum wage – so lower your hackles if that makes you want to fight. I believe that minimum wage and entitlement programs are wage slavery. It is not a slavery at the end of a whip, but a mental slavery. When you set these income bars, you condition people to believe themselves capable of only that. True freedom is understanding that they can pull themselves up and out of their current condition – at least in this county at this time.

Sorry, didn’t mean to go off on a political rant but Stowe continues to succeed in this game-changer of a book because 165 years after the publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still relevant and still inspires deep introspection.

by Chris Doelle

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