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Why I Read Uncle Tom's Cabin

Updated on March 13, 2015

Why I Read Uncle Tom's Cabin

Perhaps I read Uncle Tom's Cabin in high school, or maybe just a section, but the subtleties of the message eluded me.

My schoolmates were almost exclusively comprised of Caucasian heritage students, with no more than a few from rich minority ethnic ancestral heritages.

During my teens I met a black classmate friend of the child of one of my mother's childhood friends from Alaska.

They lived in an integrated neighborhood of Seattle, and attended a mixed race school. This was my first opportunity to meet a black person in a private home, or anywhere else, and I never forgot it.

I knew I was missing something in my own school experience. When I became aware of the plight of those who struggled for their civil rights, whether racial or ethnic based, it seemed only natural and right to me that all persons deserve the same rights and accommodations.

I was baffled by the bigots who espoused their prejudices like badges of glory. Still, I was ignorant of the intricacies of life in cities and locations where segregation was the rule, and white supremacists reigned - where the status quo was good enough for them.

Civics and history were not my first love, so I cheated myself out of what should have been a required part of our education, beyond the high school requirements. Because of that, because such discussions had no play round our dinner table, I let things ride.

But my empathic nature embraced the struggles of the oppressed peoples. I lived through the Watts Riots, in a Southern California city, that had its small-town rural-corner version, but none of it made sense to me. I could not understand the depths of despair to which the residents of the western ghettos had sunk, even though I was awash in compassion.

I'm not saying that if I had read and understood Uncle Tom's Cabin in the 50s or 60s, that I would have had a deeper understanding of the civil rights struggles, that might have taken me down to Mississippi and Alabama and DC, in supportive action, but who's to say that wouldn't have been the case.

Caring, and empathizing, and feeling compassion were the basis of my speaking out in defense of the oppressed, when an older family member used a racial slur (although she didn't mean it that way in the 50s), the child that was me spoke up and challenged her comment.

You've got it. I avoided history and civics classes in college, and maintained my caring attitude, without anything but speech behind it, until decades later. As a result, I missed many a reference to the book, and put off buying a copy until recently.

There it was, new and untouched, on a thrift store shelf. I picked it up, along with The Help, and some other books.

It is the next book I will read, planned for a quiet time during the winter.

Some Things I May Learn by Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin

1. The meanings of the use of the term he's an Uncle Tom

2. An idea of how Harriet Beecher Stowe came to write about slavery

3. Some understanding of slaveholders' evolution of thought

4. A picture of how slaves managed to retain their dignity

5. A view of how the owners' and slaves' children played together

6. Contrasting views of Northerners and Southerners who each opposed slavery

7. Something about the Underground Railway

8. An even greater appreciation of how the slavery legacy affects my neighbors today

What it Means to Call Someone an Uncle Tom

Numbered Responses to Numbered Thoughts Above

cartoon credit Berating Man

1. The term Uncle Tom most often delivers the blow of a verbal swift kick to a person of African American heritage who emulates the white man's ways, in my estimation. While reading the book it dawned on me that I was missing another point, coming as I do from an outsider's vantage spot. Could there be a viable alternative to the above connotation?

I cannot think of the book's Uncle Tom, but to wonder at the depth of the character's great faith - so strong as to refuse to set aside the torture of his master's cruel treatment, by willfully admitting to have done something he didn't do; or by delivering the same harsh punishment by carrying out his master's instructions to whip his fellow slaves.

How far, I wonder, could I persevere in such a circumstance? Try as I might, I cannot construct a mental image of any parallel punishment to which I might be subjected in my life. I'm not so naïve as to ignore the contemporary tortures of innocent persons on today's worldly landscapes, whether in prisons or encampments, but to place myself in their places is just beyond belief.

2. Uncle Tom can also be a tribute to the person whose life emulates the humility of love. Yet many torture subjects, like Uncle Tom, maintain the purity of their spirits, forgiving and praying for their perpetrators as long as they live.


How Harriet Beecher Stowe Thought About Slavery

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born two hundred years ago into a deeply religious family. Slavery was anathema to both her parents and the attitude bore fruit in their daughter's writings.

She received an education normally reserved for men, and was well versed in the classics, and contemporary issues. In 1836 Harriet Beecher married Calvin Ellis Stowe, an instructor at her father's college, who was vociferously against slavery.

The couple lived out their values, even participating in the Underground Railway, as well as teaching and writing against the holding of slaves.

By the time The Fugitive Slave Act passed Congress in 1850, her father had become President of Lane Theological Seminary, in Cincinnati, Ohio, The school was very active as a venue that spawned community education and social action against slavery.

That same year Stowe proposed that she write a series of stories for publication in the anti-slavery journal, The National Era, to voice her strong opinions on the ethics of slavery. She believed that the voices of women and children who opposed enslavement would be clearly heard if they ventured to speak and write.


A Slight Understanding of Slaveholders' Thoughts

No justification for inaction to free slaves. From the genteel master who valued and respected Tom, to the vile master of his death, I increased the depth of my comprehension of slaveholders.

St. Clare, slave Tom's benevolent owner, possessed and displayed a knowledge of the wrongness of slavery, but lacked the gumption to act on what he knew was best, substituting admission of his weak (his inability to actually free his slaves) character, for right action.

Unable to embrace the faith that both Tom and his young daughter Eva held to, St. Clare took his solace in the god of liquor, assuaging his conscience with numbness. So, St. Clare compromised his ethics, and knew he was doing so. I understand that.

Other slaveowners, however, were beyond the pale, incapable of self-examination because they were incapable of recognizing the humanity of others unlike themselves. Greed, arrogance, self-righteousness, entitlement, a sickly belief that Africans were created for their service - by God, self-aggrandizement of all types that lead humans to commit atrocities as easily as they discard moldy bread, remain inconceivable, to me.


Slaves Managed to Retain Their Dignity

Stowe builds a case for recognition of a remarkable truth. Removed from the rich landscape and culture of their African homelands, slaves still endeavored to rebuild their stores of hope in God and in the Hereafter.

Though many, if not most, of those stolen from Africa were practicing muslims, the only religious activities permitted in the new land were Christianity, which was often forced upon the slaves. The author shows us that since slaves were considered subhuman, their owners decided when or where - and if - they could have have public expression of religion.

Tom's exemplary dignity in carrying out his master's business intrigued St. Clare enough to change his life. Faith and hope in God instilled in the slave's character notions foreign to their free owners, of nobility in humility.

I struggle to imagine how I might ever comport myself, were I ever confronted with such hideous living conditions in the 21st Century West. There is many a lesson in this book.


Owners' & Slaves' Children Played

Children know truths of the heart. The gentleness of Tom's spirit, and his heightened sense of integrity were matched by that of St. Clare's young daughter, blonde haired Eva.

The little girl not only communed with Tom, as they shared Bible reading, story telling, writing and lessons; she played with the slave's children as if they were her sisters and brothers.

The children of both races developed bonds of loyalty based on their common humanity and shared lives. In some cases, the masters' children grow up to rule their former playmates, and Stowe shows us how the specifics of their relationships develop.


Northerners and Southerners' Viewpoints

Slaveowners often inherited their slaves. Such was the case with St. Clare, although not so with his brother. One felt entitled and adored himself in his position of master, while the other remained uncomfortable with his inheritance, yet little inclined to do anything to rectify his discomfort.

As in anything, when we are on the inside, it is very challenging to see that there is anything outside the sphere of our point of view. Fortunately, a noble character such as Tom appeared on his scene - a black man with a glistening soul, whose power outshone St. Clare's sun.


Stowe and the Underground Railway

A potent team, the author and her husband, Harried Beecher Stowe, harbored slaves escaping to freedom in Canada.

Stowe was primed from childhood, to put her faith into action, to right the horrendous wrong of slavery. Since she interacted with them, Stowe could introduce the reader to Friends who ran sections of the Railway.

She endowed them with human qualities, some nearly surreal in their goodness and peace, some baser.

Again, it's nearly inconceivable to a 21st Century woman, to imagine the risks the abolitionists took to harbor, outfit, and transport fugitives that were hunted with guns and dogs, or some parallel activity in this modern environment of predatory suspicion of members of the community.


Slavery Legacy Affects My Neighbors Today

Living in an interracial environment, belonging to a minority population which is constantly under suspicion, I conjecture what life would be like belonging to the community linked to the slavery heritage, as well as the runaway slave heritage, in a land of majority folks from the slaveowner heritage.

I find a legacy of mistrust to be the long lasting residual of the centuries long repercussions of slavery in America, in a tight urban setting. Being involved in interracial and interfaith groups gives me hope for an enhanced understanding to create a new legacy of respect and value across the cultural divide.

Beautiful Hardcover Enriched Edition

The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin (The Annotated Books)
The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin (The Annotated Books)

Replete with rare photographs, and discussions by Henry Louis Gates Jr., contemporary literary critic.


Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Connecticut woman, wrote from her convictions, with no attempt to placate those who trespassed into the realm of slaveholding, whether through accident of birth or by meanness of nature.

photo credit: Public Domain

Uncle Tom With Eva

Uncle Tom finds placement in the home of the beautiful and gentle spirited girl, Eva, after he saves her from drowning on a riverboat trip. In the child he finds a remarkable connection.

photo credit:Little Eva

Softcover Thrifty Edition - `

Uncle Tom's Cabin (Dover Thrift Editions)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Dover Thrift Editions)

At this price, everyone in the family can have their own copy to use for family discussions.


Uncle Tom's Cabin - the Movie

The Book With the Study Guide Included

Uncle Tom's Cabin (Dover Thrift Study Edition)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Dover Thrift Study Edition)

Unabridged choice complete with questions to consider.


1943 Comic Book Cover

1943 Comic Book Cover
1943 Comic Book Cover

Hardcover Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin

Sometimes you just want the book in it's original format.


Engage With The Question

Is Uncle Tom's Cabin a Must-Read?

Have Your Thoughts About Uncle Tom's Cabin Changed? - do you value it more or less, over the years

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    • Shades-of-truth profile image

      Emily Tack 

      3 years ago from USA

      I simply love it, and have read and re-read it over the years!

    • maryseena profile image


      6 years ago

      America has come a long way since the days of slavery, but total effective integration is still a mirage. The young generation must read on the thought-provoking novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin to share the ethos of an era poised for change but not yet ready.

    • Nightcat profile image


      6 years ago

      Yes! Always, always wanted to read it, but it was banned in my school, and later just never seemed to get there. I heard so many people say Uncle Tom in a bad way I avoided a great novel, thanks for opening my eyes! Blessed and God Bless you for writing this. :)


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