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Uncle Tom’s Cabin and International Conceptions of Race in America

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Interesting essay on the influence of the racial stereotypes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin on German conceptions of American racial issues.

For Jim O’Loughlin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a popular artefact through which changing concerns about race and nationhood can be understood, because it served as an ‘agent of cultural change for almost one hundred years.’[xi] Since this novel and its adaptations became one of the early examples for the mass circulation of popular culture, this is almost as true internationally as it is in the United States. But the process whereby Uncle Tom’s Cabin was brought to international audiences meant its racist stereotypes were not necessarily accompanied by the original novel’s redeeming feature – its antislavery message. The international cultural memory of American history presented Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to rely on such stereotypes, which are damaging because of their clichéd contemporary familiarity.

A sense of disconnect therefore exists between the historical evaluation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the contemporary willingness to use ‘Uncle Tom’ as a politicised rhetorical device. A historical lens enables readers to at once understand the novel as a flawed product of its time and an important agent of social change. Stowe’s personal commitment to antislavery went hand in hand with the dissemination of racist stereotypes that were nonetheless common in nineteenth-century America, but the contemporary reiteration of such stereotypes in America and abroad is not an innocuous mistake. History is intrinsic to making any meaning of the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’, so those who mobilise it understand its racist legacy. This does not overlook the historical foundations of such epithets, but in fact shows a willingness to mobilise a history of chattel slavery and racial hierarchy for political gain.

As David S. Reynolds writes, ‘We may hope for a time when America is, in President Barack Obama’s phrase, “beyond race,” when we can erase the negative usage of Uncle Tom because it is inapplicable to social reality.’ Yet Obama himself perhaps most prominently continues to experience the legacy of nineteenth-century popular culture in a way that debunks the myth of a post-racial America. The recent Sony hacks, where executives speculated over whether Obama would like films such as Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), the latter based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative of the same name, show how history and popular culture are very much linked to the expression of racism in America.[xii] The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, the success of which was intrinsically linked to the expansion of mass culture across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrates the degree to which national prejudices can be naturalised, rather than critiqued, through international circulation. When transported beyond the United States, the racism within American popular culture has subsequently been used to undermine a president beyond American borders. Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains at the locus of the referential network upon which this political rhetoric continues to be built.

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  • azumbrunn

    This may well be an interesting essay, however, after the three paragraphs quoted here I am not going to read the rest.
    The last sentence of the first paragraph is a grammatical disaster zone. In the preceding sentence we learn that a “process” can “mean” something. There is generally a tendency to use complicated words when simple ones would do: “History is intrinsic to making any meaning of…” is particularly delicious: The word “intrinsic” is followed immediately by the cliched and lazy “making any meaning”. Later on we learn that history can be “mobilised” like an army (hint: there is the plain word “used” which would do very well in the context).
    The word “contemporary” follows a mention of the 19th century: whose contemporaries? Ours or the 19th centuries?
    Etc.
    As I said: it may be interesting, but it is very poorly written indeed!

  • BubbaDave

    I didn’t have any trouble making sense of it, but I would like to have seen a comparison to mid-19th-century European literature dealing with Africans. That is, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin uniquely infantilizing, and adopted in preference to more nuanced works from the colonial powers? Or was it a case where Stowe was writing the same sort of (in her case well-intentioned) racist tripe as her European contemporaries, and hers attracted greater notoriety because of its political import. (“So you’re the little lady who started this great war.”)

    Also, I think it’s stretching things to assume that when a Palestinian activist called Obama an “Uncle Tom” the idea traveled from Stowe to international readership to (150 years later) Palestine. Isn’t it more likely that the activist in question got the idea from the American Left in the 1960s/’70s?

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