On stereotyping

The following is a quote from Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

If ever Africa shall show an elegant and cultured race… life will awaken there with a gorgeousness and splendor of which our cold western tribes faintly have conceived. In that far-off mystic land of gold, and gems, and spices, and waving palms, and wondrous flowers, and miraculous fertility will awaken new forms of art, new styles of splendor; and the negro race, no longer despised and trodden down, will perhaps show forth some of the latest and most magnificent revelations of human life. Certainly they will, in their gentleness, in their lowly docility of heart, their aptitude to repose on a superior mind and rest on a higher power, their childlike simplicity of affection, and facility of forgiveness.

If you would like to take a break for a moment, open the window and get some fresh air, I understand. I did, too.

Back with me? OK, let’s continue.

The quote is featured – and deservedly ridiculed – in the book Goodbye to Uncle Tom by J.C. Furnas, published in 1956, which I found in the book collection of the Women’s Faculty Club at Berkeley. The author identifies and debunks the good-intentioned, but ultimately damaging, racial stereotypes propagated by Uncle Tom and its various progeny such as “Tom shows”. Harriet Beecher Stowe had all the best intentions – he says – and rightfully condemned slavery as evil, but she had lived all her life in New England, had never travelled south of Kentucky, had no first-hand experience of plantation life, and that’s why her characters are cartoons rather than people of flesh and blood. He then proceeds to describe, in fascinating if sometimes revolting detail, what he learned in his research about the African slaves’ lives: the sales transactions, the working and living conditions on a plantation and in towns, disciplinary measures, health care, marriage, procreation and child-rearing, religion, the Underground Railroad.

Missis’s personal maid might sleep across her door to be handy. For, unlike the field hand who was pretty much on his own when his task was done, the sleep-in-house servant could never call his soul his own. Any minute, day or night, ole missis could sing out for him to do anything, from finding a missing chamberpot to bringing the bootjack for master returning mellow from court day at the country seat. Sometimes she kept her own cowhide to encourage promptness. So, in spite of prestige and perquisites, house servants might regret having been promoted. “I nursed and cooked sometimes,” a former slave recalled, “but I liked the field work better … We could talk and do anything we wanted to, just so we picked the cotton.”

It’s this level of detail – informative, well researched – that makes the book stand out. We get a good look at the way of life that nobody really likes to talk about too much. Furnas was well ahead of his time in believing that we need less Uncle Tom, and more actual reality, in public discussions of American slavery.

However, somewhere around page 48 an interesting pattern appears. The Uncle Tom quote above is introduced as follows (emphasis mine):

She also dragged mesmerism into her glib generalizations about the “African race,” and so did many other lady novelists. But unfortunately Mrs. Stowe’s effect on posterity would be heavier than that of Fanny Fern and Grace Greenwood.[…]

That’s hardly enough to attract attention, but then a similar statement is made again in a footnote on the same page:

She was not the only lady fictioneer guilty of such stuff. Here is Sara J. Hale, popular novelist […]

Are we perhaps missing some names here? Can we say “Daniel Defoe”? There are no references to “Friday” and his master Robinson Crusoe in Furnas’s book. It’s not only “lady novelists” who are to blame for racial stereotypes in popular culture, either then or now.

A further comment on the same quote:

Such rhapsody about poverty-stricken, skinny-soiled West Africa had much to do with good people’s organizing to send freed slaves to die of infections and malnutrition in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Insidiously commingled here is also a flavor of Southerners telling how and why the “darky” is so dear to his white folks and can always so touchingly count on their taking care of him. It takes genius, perhaps a specifically female genius, thus to mix these two attitudes without a hint of transition.

Such comments are in fact sprinkled throughout the book. Just a little bit later, on page 57:

[Mrs. Stowe] may well have been literally an “unusual woman.” After all, few of her lady contemporaries had such remarkable careers. Fewer still can have had her minor degree of intelligence, and many would have been far worse spoiled by the lionizing that she received.

But in the very next sentence Furnas refers to Fanny Kemble, a female writer for whom he has absolutely nothing but praise. Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, published in 1863, was everything that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not: insightful, intimately grounded in reality, painfully honest. Furnas illustrates this with a few choice quotes, such as this one. (The full text of the Journal is available online at the Gutenberg Project.)

[…] diabolically cruel to animals […] they seem to me as a rule, hardly to know the difference between truth and falsehood. These detestable qualities, which I constantly hear attributed to them as innate and inherent in their race, appear to me the direct result of their condition. The individual exceptions among them are, I think, quite as many as would be found, under similar circumstances, among the same number of white people.

Speaking of the “direct results of one’s condition”: could it be possible that if women had had the same career opportunities as men, they might have pursued them? That some of them might have even turned out to have more than a “minor degree of intelligence”? Clearly, Furnas believes that some women are excellent writers, but that does not stop him from making assumptions and generalizations about “lady novelists” and women in general. He does so even as he argues eloquently and passionately against Stowe’s racial stereotyping.

Insidiously commingled, indeed.

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