Saturday, January 15, 2005

Uncle Tom was no "Uncle Tom"

"Yes, Mas'r," said Tom, putting up his hand, to wipe the blood, that trickled down his face. "I'm willin' to work, night and day, and work while there's life and breath in me; but this yer thing I can't feel it right to do; - and, Mas'r, I never shall do it, - never!"

I just finished reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, which I began reading because of my interest in the Civil War. It is unfortunate that this book, which has probably had the single greatest impact on American history of any book ever written, outside of the Bible, is not a text that every high school graduate has read and studied. It is also unfortunate that the key figure in this book has become a name of derision. Uncle Tom was not a submissive wimp, but was an image of Christ. He endured all manner of abuse that was heaped upon him, but willingly died to save others, by refusing to be complicit in evil.

It is fascinating to read a book that is earnestly trying to convince the reader of facts that are taken for granted now, but which were quite controversial at the time. This book sought to expose the evils of slavery to both North and South, and it did so by focusing not just on the obvious examples of evil, but by showing how even well intentioned people who thought that they were treating their slaves well could not guarantee that their slaves would not end up in the hands of evil men, due to unforeseen turns of event, such as the accumulation of debts or unexpected death.

There are two particularly moving scenes in this book:

There is the escape of Eliza, a beautiful slave with an infant, who due to the debts of her owners was sold to a man who thought she would fetch a high price at auction in New Orleans. Her owners had raised her in Kentucky, and had in many ways treated her like a daughter, but when faced with the choice between financial ruin and the sale of some of their slaves, chose to latter option. Slaves in border states generally were treated better, because it was easier for them to escape, but there was always the threat of being “sold down the river” to New Orleans, where they would wind up on a plantation in the deep south, where being worked to death was not an uncommon experience… or, if they were women of beauty, they might be sold into a life of shame. In any case, Eliza knew she would be separated from her husband, and likely separated from her baby. She chose to run, and in a scene that reminds one of the crossing at the Red Sea, she crosses the Ohio river by skipping across on ice patches. This incident was patterned on a true story, as are most of the incidents in this novel.

The trader caught a full glimpse of her just as she was disappearing down the bank; and throwing himself from his horse, and calling loudly on Sam and Andy, he was after her like a hound after a deer. In that dizzy moment her feet to her scarce seemed to touch the ground, and a moment brought her to the water's edge. Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap - impossible to anything but madness and despair; and Haley, Sam, and Andy, instinctively cried out, and lifted up their hands, as she did it. The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake; stumbling - leaping - slipping - springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone - her stockings cut from her feet - while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.

Then there is the scene in which Tom is beaten to death by Simon Legree, for refusing to tell what he knows about two escaped slave women.

An't I yer master? Didn't I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black shell? An't yer mine, now, body and soul?" he said, giving Tom a violent kick with his heavy boot; "tell me!"

In the very depth of physical suffering, bowed by brutal oppression, this question shot a gleam of joy and triumph through Tom's soul. He suddenly stretched himself up, and, looking earnestly to heaven, while the tears and blood that flowed down his face mingled, he exclaimed,

"No! no! no! my soul an't yours, Mas'r! You haven't bought it, - ye can't buy it! It's been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it; - no matter, no matter, you can't harm me!"

After reading this book it is easy to see how it was credited with starting the Civil War. It certainly brought the issue of slavery home, by causing people who had generally not thought deeply about it (since, after all, slavery had been the way of the world in every part of the globe since the fall of Adam) to see slavery from the vantage point of the slave, and to imagine what it must be like to see ones daughter bought by a scummy man who clearly had dishonorable intentions, to be separated from ones wife, or to face the uncertainty of a slave auction themselves.

What is most striking about this book is what a thoroughly Christian book it is. This book if full of Christian imagery, and sought to appeal to the Christian faith of its readers. This may explain why the book itself is generally not taught in public schools today. What a shame.