Friday, July 1, 2011

No Uncle Tom

I was reading an interesting essay in a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson called, The Death of Adam. This particular essay was about McGuffey (of the McGuffey Readers) and the abolitionists. McGuffey's readers were a staple of American education in the mid-1800s. Some of the readers were used in high schools and colleges. Not too much is known about McGuffey -he was born in Pennsylvania and became a college professor and Presbyterian minister. Although he preached and taught for a long time he left no lectures, sermons or books behind. He settled in Cincinnati where he was president of Cincinnati College and began the public school system in Ohio. Cincinnati in the mid 1800's was a pro-slavery city and yet it was also a hotbed for the abolitionist movement. Lyman Beecher, who produced 13 children with two wives (the first one died when her nine children were still young - many becoming leading social reformers), was a famous pastor in the East but was challenged to come West and lead a new seminary that was attended mostly by students who shared a radical commitment to end slavery. Lyman Beecher was a respected preacher in his own right but one of his sons, Henry, would go back East to the Bronx and become even more famous than his father. One of Beecher's daughters, Catharine, was a leading educational reformer, abolitionist and college president, and she was approached by the benefactor of the McGuffey Readers, William Smith, to be the first editor of the Readers (if she had taken the job would they have been called Beecher Readers?). She turned down the proposal and suggested McGuffey. McGuffey gathered an amazing array of writers for the Readers - most of them with solid reform and abolitionist credentials. Since the Readers became so popular all over the country they had to write with great tact and not show all their radical colors. One of the writers for McGuffey was Harriet Beecher Stowe. She, of course, is best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin which Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting her said, so this is the little woman whose book caused this great war (or something to that effect).

My point is that after reading this essay on McGuffey I realized I had never read Stowe's book. It has been named one of the most important books of American history and yet, how many people today can say they have read it. We all know names and themes from the book, like, Simon Legree the cruel slave holder and, of course, Uncle Tom himself who has become identified with those who were seen as traitors to their race because they did not stand up to the majority white culture. Since I was one of those who thought he knew what Uncle Tom's Cabin meant without ever reading it, I decided to read it. What a surprise! It was not what I thought it was. It is a very well written book, an amazing work. Stowe wrote at a time when much of the country was religious, even the non-religious were reacting to the religion of the day which was Christianity. Most ministers were pro-slavery as an institution. They provided Biblical reasons for slavery or at least did not think they could get away with attacking it. Some who tried to raise questions about it's Biblical basis did not have their jobs very long. Stowe is devastating in her satirical attacks on this majority religious point of view. She is relentless in her ridicule of those Christians who think they are practicing Christianity just because they are mouthing the same untenable beliefs of the majority church. Their practice of gospel Christianity is hopelessly hypocritical. For instance, while speaking about a Bishop who would not question slavery she noted that some of the first Bishops who came before him in the early church were, indeed, Black!). While showing in great detail the unreasonable prejudices of the White culture she was also able to let that culture get inside the skin of Black slaves to feel what they must feel as slaves: when their children were sold out from under them; when marriages were split up; when slave women were sexually exploited; when they were beaten by cruel masters; when they had no freedoms, no rights, no hope. She tells the story about people who are just like "us" for one of the lies that defined slavery was racial: "they are a race that are not like "us". In fact, she shows how the Black slaves were often more Christian than the Christian majority. Her central character is a Christ figure. Uncle Tom is a preacher and a pray-er. He counsels his kin to forgive, to love those who persecute you, to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek, to abhor violence. He is a walking, talking Sermon on the Mount. For what has been perceived as passivity in the face in the justice his name has become synonymous with others who are seen as weak and cowardly in the face of injustice. But, Uncle Tom is no Uncle Tom. There is a strength and power in his life that transformed the way people looked at slavery. His death at the cruel hands of the nasty slavemaster Legree - was a sacrificial death. He died so others might live, freely. His way of non-violence was incorporated later into the civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King (who was also criticized as an Uncle Tom by some).

Stowe's book may be the most important book in American history that no one reads today.