Not My Uncle Tom

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Not My Uncle Tom

Catherine Durante

James Weldon Johnson once said this of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is "a book that cleared the whole mystery." I knew nothing of James Johnson except that he wrote a book entitled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Judging by the title, it's safe to assume that Johnson was African-American. He seems to concur with Stowe's depiction of slavery in the 19th century and her preference to write as an advocate of the African American culture and the eradication of black servitude. Stowe cleared it all did she? Well as Reba McEntire once said, "I beg to differ!" Stowe's main audience in this novel is white wives of American politicians primarily, but widely for females holistically. However, as a Caucasian female at a young age, I find I have trouble identifying with the story and cannot glimpse the tale outside of its reference to that historical time period. Look around. There is affirmative action. There are minority programs. There are predominantly African American colleges standing erect. Yes, the scars of the chains will forever be seared into the wrists and ankles of those generations with slavery ridden pasts. But how can I, with the last name "Durante," be a part of such a rich and shameful part of human and American history. The best I can do is read the novel, be moderately moved by it, but I can never truly dive into its most intimate moments. Today's world occupies a new set of morals and mind sets that are not consonant with those in the days of Uncle Tom. "Every generation wants to be part of something immortal." For this "X" generation, this anonymous quote would be valid if Uncle Tom's Cabin even gives us a chance to make it our own.

Perhaps the most profound element of the novel that distances this generation from this tale of the past is the religious and Christian themed soaked pages. Turn after turn, paragraph after paragraph, the book is dripping with references that only those who have taken the time to master every syllable of the Bible would comprehend. Yes, Stowe takes excerpts that are able to be understood in conjunction with the text without the included passages from where they originated on the bottom of the page. However, such verbal inclusions as "Weep not for those whom the veil of the tomb,/ In life's early morning, hath hid from our eyes" (246) require the reader to stop and think about what these confusing words meshed together signify. The footnote reveals that these are the first lines of the poem "Weep Not for Those" from the Irish poet Thomas Moore's Sacred Songs written in 1816. Thomas Moore was well-known during Stowe's time. In 1835 he was awarded literary pension, remained a popular writer during the course of his life and received Civil List pension in 1850. I have never heard the name Thomas Moore, though I did confuse him with a Sir Thomas More which my previous American History teachers had drilled into my cranium. Such references do not draw me to the text but only allow me to realize the large breadth between the 19th and 21st centuries. Dave Olsen, the director of church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, surveying only Christian churches accounts that only 18.7% of Americans regularly attend church. Thus such quotes such as, "Look in those clouds!-they look like great gates of pearl..." (227) from Revelation 21.20-12,21, "learned in whatsoever state he was, therewith to be content..." (223) from Isaiah 40.6, and especially "I have put my trust in the Lord God..." (166) from Psalm 73.2-28 do not reach out the 2006 American public. How is this society expected to be engulfed in such themes if it is not in contact with their origins, the House of God? Such preachy writing only echoes those lectures of the constant, hounding parentals.

Not only do the teenagers of the times, spanning those in high school, middle school and college feel removed from Uncle Tom but pedagogues as well. Elaine Showalter, an English professor at Rutgers University states, "The reason we do not teach or respect Uncle Tom's Cabin has less to do with the qualities of the book itself, with its alleged sentimentality, or its enormous and shameful popularity, or its deliberate intent to change things rather than beautifully represent them, than with the fact that it is an anomaly in a period where the literary canon is exceptionally narrow and strong" (ADE Bulletin 070 (Winter 1999):17-21). Showalter then stresses the germaneness of instead reading Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman's writing also takes place in a pronounced time period quite different from our own however, schizophrenia and madness are issues that touch directly or indirectly today's youth. Health classes required for high school level sophomores even have a section of their syllabus' devoted to schizophrenia and various mental illnesses. Gilman's themes are universal and Showalter agrees that students will not be as enriched by Uncle Tom's Cabin as The Yellow Wallpaper . I cannot agree more.

There is no question that the role of women in today's society has vastly improved from centuries past. However, male dominated events and actions are still prominent. Sheila Jeffrys mentioned how "When a woman reaches orgasm with a man she is only collaborating with the patriarchal system, eroticizing her own oppression..." (BC Fathers). In today's day and age Stowe's female characters, who are morally courageous and committed in the text, may be misconstrued as over-emotional women. Senator Bird's wife states, "You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It's a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I'll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance..." (69). Joy Kroeger –Mappes, a professor of philosophy at Frostburg State University in Maryland feels that "moral theories that bring in aspects of women's morality and /or womanly virtues and subsume them into a larger category or relabel them do not address the fatal flaw in today's system. Such theories do not benefit women because they function to support the status quo and thus do not contribute to efforts to end the subordination and powerlessness of women" (Kessler 119). Such moral virtues that Stowe tries to present in her women characters have the opposite effect of proving men right by saying that women are led too much by emotions. Whereas in Stowe's time such writing evoked passion in women readers, today such tactics of cajoling our husbands degrades us instead of praises us by deducing that our meaningful actions can only be completed with the help of the opposite sex. Furthermore as a white woman I can never connect with those experiences of Black women. "As a result of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, apartheid, and other systems of racial domination, Black people share a common experience of oppression. These two factors foster shared Afrocentric values that permeate the family structure, religious institutions, culture, and community life of Blacks in varying parts of Africa, the Carribean, South America, and North America" (294). Patricia Hill Collins said this assertion as a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Cincinnati and accepts the separate orb that Black culture encompasses whose membrane cannot be impregnated. I cannot understand despite my utmost endeavors.

Stowe was writing at a time when Caucasians did not perceive African Americans as humans but rather as property. Today, the notion is not even discussed, unless of course someone rents "Crash," and a racial slur by a white person is castigated by the black community. Of course it is easy to say that the parallel notion to Stowe's slavery is modern terrorism. Most of us do not devote time to show compassion toward fellow human beings. However, I have never heard of Laura Bush gently coaxing George not to invade Iraq. Then again, if she did, she didn't do a very good job. Yet again another of Stowe's methods fails by today's standards.

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