Courting Controversy

  • By Wendy Besel Hahn
  • December 12, 2023

Teaching Uncle Tom’s Cabin in high school.

Courting Controversy

I’d had four years of teaching experience when, in 2001, I was set loose in the Chantilly High School English Department’s book room to choose works from a treasure trove for my AP English classes. My mentor, Anne Bednarz, and I selected Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for our syllabus in part because it was the first banned book in American literature (due to its anti-slavery sentiment).

Although the work originally appeared in serial form, a publisher released it as a novel in 1852, selling 300,000 copies in its first year. Eventually, sales were second only to the Bible. The book’s success spawned publications intent on defending slavery and wealthy white Southerners’ way of life. None, however, came close to achieving the popularity of Stowe’s bestselling work. Critics often credit the novel with shaping the ensuing genre of protest literature that included Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

To me, Uncle Tom’s Cabin seemed the ideal reading selection for 11th-graders, most of whom were also enrolled in AP American history. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into, however.

While parents and school-board members at my Virginia school voiced no objections to the novel, it had been removed from the shelves in another county back in 1984 due to its use of racial slurs. As I read more about its reception among the literati, I discovered that slurs might be its least offensive aspect. Although Fredrick Douglass initially admired the book, he decried its co-opting of slave narratives after Stowe gained fame. Renowned Black authors Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin were among its most prominent 20th-century critics.

The volume of criticism grew exponentially over the decades, with many detractors objecting to the stereotypes Stowe created or perpetuated. These include the “magical Negro” (Uncle Tom), the dishonest slave (Topsy), and the white savior (Eva). As a white woman and new teacher, how would I convey the complexity of this work that many Americans — possibly even Abraham Lincoln himself — credited with bringing about the Civil War?

On the surface, my students found the book a straightforward read. The novel served up sentimental scenes that followed in chronological order. Stowe delivered an unmistakable message: Slavery was evil and in no way compatible with Christianity. In many respects, the book was beneath my students’ reading level, but class discussions centered around the context of the novel and its aftermath, including explorations of the damaging stereotypes Stowe employed.

Given our current times, I often wonder whether I would dare select it again. How would students process Uncle Tom’s Cabin in an America that has elected its first Black president, seen the rise of Donald Trump, and endured a sharp increase in public expressions of white supremacy? What is the role of Stowe’s book, with its enduring caricatures, amid today’s eruptions of racial tension and violence?

I believe its role is to show the power of fiction — good and bad.

In an era where politicians instruct teachers to emphasize how enslaved people “gained necessary skills that helped them ultimately prosper,” I’d love to trumpet Stowe’s unapologetic work about the evils of slavery. Still, the novel demands a companion. Reading it alongside, say, Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, would ensure her caricatures don’t stand alone. Additional pairing options might include Wright’s Native Son (a 1940 protest novel written in response to Stowe) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Although I left the classroom in 2004, I still ball up my fists in frustration when I hear about the bans on teaching AP African American Studies in certain states. Yet I know that, as a white woman, I’m not the best-suited person to teach that course. Perhaps I maintain an affinity for Stowe’s novel because its paradoxical legacy leaves me unsettled: Uncle Tom’s Cabin both advanced the abolitionist movement and negatively impacted the descendants of the enslaved people burdened with the proliferation of its stereotypes.

Wendy Besel Hahn is the nonfiction editor for Furious Gravity, an anthology of 50 women writers in the Washington, DC, area. Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Washington Post, Scary Mommy, Hippocampus, Sojourners, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Denver, Colorado.

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