I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a class in the last month, and I’m stunned at the aftermath it had on American culture. From traveling theatre companies with white actors in blackface, to little collectable postcards; from children’s picture books of the slave narrative, to framed lithographs that middle-class families could hang up over their mantelpieces– popular American culture hooked onto the soap-opera-like novel and profited greatly from its popularity. And it got me thinking: people love to commodify black culture when it is beneficial, and drop it the moment it’s deemed un-cool or unprofitable. It’s written deep into America’s history, and keeps emerging in contemporary culture as well– the most recent I can think of being Ariana Grande’s subtle but unmistakable plagiarism of lyrics from black rappers and hip-hop artists. I’d always been conscious of the magnitude of cultural appropriation in America, but it was until reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin that I realized the full scope of America’s entrenched history in stealing or distorting marginalized cultures for profit. It’s disgusting.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written in installments in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white abolitionist. The book reads like a soap-opera: overly dramatic with characters breaking out in sudden all-important realizations and constantly crying; the black characters and their lives are romanticized and the “good” white characters are often portrayed as being saviors (see: little Eva). Though it attempts to humanize slaves– a concept quite foreign to nineteenth century Americans– Stowe, as a comfortable white woman from the North who has experienced not even a fraction of what the characters in her book have experienced. In short, it relies heavily on stereotypes and caricatures. The book’s overall aim is to resist the institution of slavery, and it was wildly successful at that aim; but just because it’s anti-slavery certainly didn’t make it anti-racist.
I think these points of in-authenticity allowed people to capitalize on the success of the book. In today’s parlance, Uncle Tom’s Cabin went viral. As my professor put it, it spread like an internet meme. Lots of knick-knacks and household collectible were created, many paintings, records, children’s picture books, translations, postcards. My class visited the Clement’s library behind Hatcher to view some of these pieces; here are some examples:
There were even traveling theatre companies that performed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a play for entertainment, mainly with white actors in blackface. In a letter from one such theatre company to the owner of a theatre, the company explains that they have not only white actors, but black actors, describing the black actors in language I’m too disgusted to reproduce here. I was stunned and horrified, the irony of the situation painfully bitter. These companies were using slaves for their own gain. They took an anti-slavery book and used it for profit while perpetuating the very thing the book tried to destroy. And then it hit me– of course. America won’t give up racism until it’s not economically beneficial. And for all of its history, racism has been wildly beneficial.
It’s why we still see atrocious rates of mass incarceration of black men, why we see police brutality, why we see blatant acts of cultural appropriation by celebrities. It’s economically beneficial. Ariana Grande, with visibly darker and tanned skin, her lyrics thick with a “blackcent”, her music videos with black girls as a way to “make up” for her appropriation, and the outright plagiarism of her lyrics, adds to this recurrent narrative. Of course, just like all the actors from the theatre company, and like the creators of Uncle Tom’s Cabin paraphernalia, and perhaps even like Stowe, Ariana Grande and so many other people of privilege will walk away unscathed, leaving behind a population that continues to be hurt and injustice that goes on, and on, and on.
All images courtesy of University of Michigan’s Clements Library. Special thanks to Professor Sara Blair from the English Department and Clayton Lewis, Curator of Graphics Material at the Clements Library.
References: La Case de L’Oncle Tom. / Heroisme de L’Amour Maternal. Paris: Chez Mine´, [ca. 1850s]. [Lithograph broadside, hand colored]
Onkel Tom’s Hütte. Serie 2. Elmshorn, Holstein: Wagner & Co., [ca. 1928]. [Six color lithograph collecting cards]
Terry’s Big Two-Car Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company. [Little Sioux, Iowa]: Terry’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin Co. circa 1910. [Promotional circular letter]