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A Black Jesus?

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A Black Jesus?

Jackie O'Mara

The stories of The Bible are some of the oldest and, to many, most sacred stories in human history. In the time of the publishing of Uncle Tom's Cabin, religion – Christianity in particular – was one of the driving forces of the United States. Politics, especially between the North and the South, were another. So when Harriet Beecher Stowe juxtaposed religion and politics in Uncle Tom's Cabin, she was sure to strike a chord in American society that could not be ignored. Along with the obvious issue of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe attempts to move her readers on a spiritual level by depicting the protagonist, Uncle Tom, as a Christ figure. The story of Jesus Christ is often retold in various forms in literature, which has the effect of using it as a way to interpret and understand many of the issues that face society. Stowe reconfigures the tale of Jesus to give Tom's life story a special significance. By touching on some of the most central beliefs of her audience, Stowe ensures that her message regarding slavery will not go unheeded.

The similarities between the story of Uncle Tom and the story of Jesus are striking. Tom uses Jesus' own words at critical moments in his life. When Tom is going to be whipped to death for not disclosing the whereabouts of Cassy and Emmeline, he quotes the final words of Christ on the cross (Stowe, 357). Tom also speaks the words of Jesus when talking to St. Clare after the death of Eva (262). The use of Christ's actual words as quoted from The Bible by Tom ensures that the reader will understand the comparison. A tactic that remains effective even in modern editions, which include this information in separate notes. In addition to direct quotations, Stowe replicates situations for Tom that Jesus also experienced.

At Simon Legree's plantation, Legree tempts Tom with promises of being an overseer, saying that Tom would "have been better off than Sambo, or Quimbo either, and had easy times" if he had not refused to beat one of the older, female slaves (Stowe, 339). Legree implores:
"Come, Tom, don't you think you'd better be reasonable? – heave that ar old pack of trash into the fire, and join my church!" (339)
This is similar to the way in which Satan tempts Jesus in the desert:
Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew 4.8-9)
The classic example of overcoming temptation proves to be a strong comparison between Christ and Uncle Tom.

Another, even more powerful association between Tom and Jesus comes as Cassy and Emmeline are planning their escape. Cassy asks Tom to go with them: "Would you try it with us, Father Tom" (Stowe, 345)? Tom has the opportunity to get himself out of a deadly situation, but he says that his place is with the rest of the Legree's slaves:
"No," said Tom; "time was when I would; but the Lord's given me a work among these yer poor souls, and I'll stay with 'em and bear my cross with 'em till the end." (345)
In this quote, Tom makes the clear reference to the bearing of a cross, but he also makes the choice to stay in a situation that is sure to lead to his death. In The Bible, Jesus has the ability to save himself from his own crucifixion: "If thou be Christ, save thyself" (St. Luke 23.39). Other stories with a Jesus figure have similar incidents. The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, has the character of Aslan as a representation of Christ. As Aslan is being killed, he could, at any moment, jump up and fight back, but he chooses not to in order to save the boy Edmund (Lewis, 181). Making the choice to die for others is arguably the most moving image of Christ in the Bible. Stowe makes certain that the reader sees this image in the death of Uncle Tom.

Uncle Tom's Cabin has another character that is similar to Christ – Eva "The Little Evangelist" St. Clare (Stowe, 242). Eva enters the novel as an ethereal presence and leaves it as an angel: "the rays of the sun formed a kind of glory behind her, as she came forward in her white dress, with her golden hair and glowing cheeks" (240). Tom and Eva read The Bible together and discuss its meanings, and Tom "almost worshipped her as something heavenly and divine" (224). Eva can very easily be seen as a Jesus figure in the novel, and yet she lacks many of the direct analogies to Christ that Tom has. She says that she "can understand why Jesus wanted to die for us" (240), but her death does not result in the salvation of the slaves as Tom's does later on (380). Eva does play an important role in Stowe's message for her readers, however. The strategic placement of Eva and all of her heavenly qualities sets the stage for some of the more crucial incidents with Tom. Eva makes it possible for the audience to see Christ in another character. It is not much of a stretch to view an angelic, blonde, little white girl as an imitation of Christ. When Eva dies, Tom can take over as the true Jesus figure, and his story has all the more power because it has been foreshadowed.

What does a retelling of the story of Christ do for a novel like Uncle Tom's Cabin? On a broader scale, why are there so many stories that retell or reconfigure the story of Jesus in some way? What good does this accomplish? To look at The Bible alone, there are many people who experience situations similar to that of Jesus. Temptation, miracles, healing, and teaching are common themes throughout The Bible. The emphasis that is created by this type of repetition illustrates how this story that can be applied to many situations. It is not unique to the Son of God. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example, the literal story of Jesus would not accomplish Stowe's ultimate goal for the novel. She must therefore, while still using the powerful tale of the life of Christ, modify it to give a comprehensible meaning to the life and actions of a poor, old, black slave. As quoted by Burton Mack, author of Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of a Christian Myth:
[Early Christian's] reasons for telling their stories are not good enough to be our reasons for continuing to tell the stores just as they told them.
We as an audience can still "appreciate the mythmaking" (Mack) that is the repetition and restructuring of traditional Bible stories. This appreciation is what Stowe was hoping to evoke in her readers, and with it, an understanding of the similarities of human situations.

It is relatively easy to argue dogma and rhetoric. The words of The Bible can also be used to justify many things, such as slavery (Stowe, 107). It is the qualities and experiences of Christ – shown in Uncle Tom's Cabin through the life of a slave – that can transcend time. By setting up two possible comparisons to Jesus, as well as strikingly clear parallels between the stories, Harriet Beecher Stowe makes it nearly impossible for her Christian audience to refuse the anti-slavery message of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is a common strategy, but an immensely powerful one.

Comments made prior to 2007
I am responding to a post by Jackie O'Mara about the connection between Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Bible.  I thought Jackie might be interested in a short book written by Vincent Wimbush called The Bible and African Americans: A Brief History (Facets). 

One of the basic tenets of the book is that historical African -American interactions with the Bible were radically different than that of white Europeans.  While whites saw the Bible as a mandate to save the world for Christ (and also take slaves since that could be biblically justified), Africans when they first encountered missionaries and their Bibles, at first rejected the idea of the sacred being confined to a book (see Chapter 16 of the novel Things Fall Apart). 

Once in America as slaves, blacks adopted the Bible and developed their own way of interacting with it.  Wimbush sees the interaction as a reflection of black experience of suffering under slavery.

These are two phases of five that Wimbush describes in the book.  I won't go into all the details about the others but it is an interesting read and parallels the arguments that Jackie presents ... Paul Burgmayer, 26 March 2006