"Uncle Tom" Today: From Slavery to Obscurity?

George Stuteville
for National Geographic magazine
and National Geographic News
February 17, 2005

Most of the year he's hardly around, except for brief appearances in the occasional literature or history class.

But in February, during the United States' Black History Month, he usually returns—the controversial main character of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the antislavery novel that drove a deep wedge into America's pre-Civil War consciousness.

This year is no different. Numerous references to Uncle Tom appear in Internet search engines as news articles and broadcasts reexamine the legacy of slavery in the U.S. and the racist heritage that lingered until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. (Share your thoughts on civil rights in National Geographic magazine's forum, and then cast your vote about affirmative action in a poll.)

Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel is an undisputed classic that helped change the course of U.S. history.

However, the book appears to be in danger of becoming a relic. Last year, about 18,000 copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin were sold—roughly half of the total in 2001.

Yet some scholars insist there is a resurgence of interest in the book, its author, and its real-life Uncle Tom model, a slave who toiled at a farm in what is now a Washington, D.C., suburb.

The Real Uncle Tom

That man was Josiah Henson, who spent more than 30 years as a slave on a Montgomery County, Maryland farm, just north of the nation's capital. After publishing his own memoirs in 1849 as a free man in Canada, it was Henson who served as Stowe's primary model for Tom.

Through Tom's experiences, many of which were remarkably similar to Henson's, Stowe put human faces on the institution of slavery. Its white and black characters were shown in all their cruelty, courage, compassion, and cowardice.

Stowe's vignettes ranged from the pitiful sale of Uncle Tom to settle his master's business debts to a woman's desperate escape to freedom by dashing across the frozen Ohio River, her baby in her arms.

Moving across the range of human emotions, the book describes the childlike relationship between Tom and the dying daughter of yet another owner and the fatal beating he suffered at the order of his final master. It contrasted the base violence of slave hunters with the benevolence of those who risked home and safety to help thousands of slaves reach freedom.

The book was an immediate best seller, with more than 300,000 copies sold in its first year of publication. With its easy-to-grasp message and its mid-1850s sentimental style, it became a cultural icon.

Continued on Next Page >>


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