Friday, April 4, 2014

James Baldwin on Uncle Tom's Cabin

We’ve just finished up our Uncle Tom’s Cabin unit in my Race and Slavery class with a journey into the Anti-Tom novels and one of my personal favorites, Martin Delany’s unfinished 1859 novel Blake or the Huts of America. This week in my Religion class we read James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “Down at the Cross” (published in book form as The Fire Next Time). This morning, I indulged in this accidental convergence of topics by reading Baldwin’s 1949 essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” from Notes of a Native Son. You can read an excerpt or (wonderful internet!) I found a copy of the complete essay.

Baldwin is critical of what he identifies as the actual motivations behind the novel:
“The virtuous rage of Mrs. Stowe is motivated by nothing so temporal as a concern for the relationship of men to one another—or, even, as she would have claimed, by a concern for their relationship to God—but merely by a panic of being hurled into the flames, of being caught in traffic with the devil.” Here, in a nutshell, is the central problematic of antebellum antislavery: a movement to purge the nation of its chief sin that largely failed to interrogate racial ideology and remained fundamentally ambivalent, if not downright hostile to the prospect of an interracial society.  

But Baldwin's point cuts much deeper, to what he identifies as the racial vision within the Protestant message of salvation. Stowe wants to bring “freedom to the oppressed” through a vision of salvation, argues Baldwin, that ultimately equates blackness with darkness, the African with pagan.  Stowe calls upon the black man to embrace a theology that “denies him life” and defines the black man as “sub-human.”  This, according to Baldwin, is the failure of the protest novel, its flawed attempt to battle our humanity and seek redemption in some other realm of salvation, through a tableau in which, he explains, the slave "cried" to "his Maker...Wash me...and I shall be whiter, whiter than snow!" Baldwin repudiates this and calls upon black men to embrace the “beauty, dread, power” of “life” and of their own blackness.

It's a powerful and challenging essay.  And there is plenty more to say and thing through here.  Maybe we'll just have to read it in class next week after all!  Now I'm going to go home and reread Go Tell It On The Mountain and wish I had a fraction of Baldwin's touch with prose...

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