Uncle Tom's Cabin: A History

Ally Zhang


During the 1850s, the explosive popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin led to a variety of products that demonstrated contemporary white attitudes towards slaves and African-Americans in general. The black characters were usually depicted as uneducated yet innocent and diligent laborers, earnestly striving for freedom; while this was progressive for its day, it carried patronizing undertones and continued to portray whites as saviors. The message was ultimately meant to inspire white audiences to pity blacks while at the same time reassuring them that they were still morally good.

"Our Homestead is Surely the Sweetest on Earth"

He tells me such tales,
and he sings me his songs,
he talks ever gentle,
but never of his wrongs;
he calls me dear Missus,
he prays morn and night;
and he follows my pastimes,
with cheerful delight,
dear Uncle Tom, oh good Uncle Tom.

Sung from the point of view of Evangeline, the daughter of Tom's second master, this song shows Tom as a passive character who submits uncomplainingly to kind ownership, making Eva herself seem more unambiguously angelic and moral.

"'Topsy', or the Slave Girl's Appeal"

'Full of tricks, as thieving, lying,
Hating all with wicked hate;
Getting punish'd, roaring, crying,
That was my most wicked state.

'Then Miss Eva looked so loving,
Spoke so sweetly in my ear,
Told me I was worth improving,
Said, 'I nothing had to fear.'

From the perspective of young slave Topsy, this poem once again shows the influence an angelic white savior can have on a 'wicked' black person, removing any power the black person might have to change herself.

Additional Reflections

In almost all the visual depictions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, even the most sympathetic, African-Americans are portrayed with caricatured features like bright red lips and literal black skin, in sharp contrast to the classically beautiful white characters. In addition, slaves rarely appear alone; they are always accompanied somehow by a white person, whether or not that person is antagonistic. The overall message seems to be that blacks, for all their struggles and saintly devotion, are ultimately inferior to and reliant upon whites.

Despite this unfortunate connotation, I was surprised to see that most of the images ultimately carried a positive and sympathetic depiction of slaves. Given how often we discuss racism and slavery in class, it was refreshing to see that many people, even before the Civil War, were willing and even eager to treat blacks as moral equals and proudly show their support for abolition.