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Column: Selling ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ to my students

  • Paul Keane. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 6/12/2020 10:10:26 PM
Modified: 6/12/2020 10:10:12 PM

From 1987 to 2012, I taught English at two Vermont high schools, one year at the first and then 24 years at the second, Hartford High. I taught more than 2,600 students, and only about 10 of them were students of color.

My English department at Hartford in 1988 was enlightened even by today’s standards, and its faculty members were allowed to choose the books they wanted to use in advancing the curriculum, even if it meant the expense of ordering new titles. But despite its enlightenment, I noticed early on that my 11th grade classes read no books written by women or by black authors.

I decided to solve two problems at once. I ordered sets Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Some students gobbled up these modern books.

I also found, in a supply closet, a dusty set of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was a white woman, and published in book form in 1852, it is 391 pages long and written in 19th century prose. I wondered how I could persuade modern teenagers to read it.

Fortunately, just a year earlier, a made-for-TV adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, starring Avery Brooks and Samuel L. Jackson, had been released. Suddenly, the 136-year-old classic became interesting.

The fact that the novel was written by a woman had not excited my students. Nor had the fact that it was the best-selling book of the 1800s, second only to the Bible. That it had made Queen Victoria weep when she read it, along with the rest of the world, in monthly installments in the abolitionist publication The National Era, had not impressed them. Even the famous story about President Abraham Lincoln telling Stowe, upon being introduced at a White House reception, “So you are the little lady who started this great war,” didn’t excite them.

But the fact that Stowe’s book had been made into a TV movie, well, that made it “cool.”

I occasionally got a wisecrack question — “That’s not English, it’s history. Why are you teaching that?” My answer was usually, “We teach interdisciplinary courses in this school, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a novel that actually changed the world.”

One day in class I screened the portion of the movie that depicted a slave auction — men and women being sold, children being torn from their parents. When I turned the lights back on, my students’ white faces were grave. The class was uncharacteristically quiet, the quiet of sadness or extreme seriousness. In a country where the average marriage lasts 11 years, being separated from your parents was something all too many of my kids could understand.

I jumped into that silence, but gently.

“Why would white people think they could buy and sell other human beings like furniture?” I asked. “They didn’t even give them the dignity of a dining room set. You wouldn’t separate the chairs from the table or the buffet from the sideboard. Why would you sell the mother to one buyer and the children or the father to another? Why would you think you could buy and sell human beings at all?”

The stunned silence continued, as if no one had ever asked them to think about the immorality of slavery before.

“It must have been a form of temporary insanity, except that it wasn’t temporary,” I went on. “It lasted from the earliest colonial times until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the 13th Amendment two years, later made slavery illegal forever in America — Lincoln’s final achievement before he was assassinated.”

But Jim Crow, white supremacy and segregation soon picked up where slavery left off, until the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. And yet here we are again, in 2020, with the country convulsed by protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, only the latest in a long line of people killed because of the color of their skin.

Harriet Beecher Stowe had recognized the hypocrisy of slavery when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was as if the “divine right of kings,” which governed Europe for centuries, had been abolished and replaced in America by the divine right of whites. And Uncle Tom’s Cabin pulled the rug out from under Christian preachers who used the Bible as divine justification for selling black and brown human beings at auction.

In the movie, Simon Legree threatens Tom for defying him: “The Bible says, ‘Obey thy master.’ Well ain’t I your master? Ain’t I?” he demands, before punching Tom in the face for refusing to obey.

I remember one student asking, “Why didn’t Tom fight back?” I had to explain that he was trapped. Where could he go? Unless he had papers saying his master had freed him, he would be considered a runaway, “property” to be returned to his “owner.”

Instead of fighting back, Tom replies, with blood pouring from his mouth, “Nobody, nobody can buy my soul.”

Maybe that’s what the serious silence of my white students meant. Maybe that’s what the people in the streets protesting the police killing of George Floyd are telling us. Nobody can buy their souls.

Paul Keane is a retired Hartford High School English teacher.




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