by David Silverberg
When my son was in middle school in Virginia he was assigned to read the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
I had never read the book. I knew of “Uncle Tom” as a derogatory insult but not the novel behind the epithet.
It was in our house. So I read it.
Now I know: Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most powerful work of American fiction ever written.
It is searing, it is enlightening, it is deeply disturbing and even 170 years after it was published it is as controversial as it was on June 5, 1851, the day its first chapter appeared as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era.
Just how controversial it is could be seen on Jan. 19 of this year, when a copy arrived in the office of Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.).
Donalds was outraged. He took it as an insult and a challenge.
“Whoever sent this book did so w/ hate in their heart & the desire to depict me as a sellout,” he raged in a tweet.
Four days later he elaborated in a mass e-mail: “When my colleagues nominated me to be Speaker of the House earlier this month, the radical Left and the Fake New [sic] Media put a target on my back. They’ve already called me a white supremacist, a diversity statement, and a prop. Now, someone just mailed a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s renowned book Uncle Tom’s Cabin to my congressional office. The hateful individual who sent it was trying to depict me as a sellout because I’m a black conservative who REFUSES to tow the Democrat party line.”
Then Donalds immediately sought to exploit the incident for fundraising purposes: “Let’s show them that their racist attack BACKFIRED with a surge of grassroots contributions to support my fight against the destructive far-Left agenda. Please make a contribution to help me defend myself from the Left’s racist attacks and fight back against the ruinous Biden-Harris agenda in the new Congress.”
(For the record and under oath: That copy was NOT sent by this author or The Paradise Progressive.)
Beyond its aspects as an insult, Uncle Tom’s Cabin raises a serious question for Florida given Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-woke crusade as well as state legislative efforts to craft a version of American history that doesn’t disturb or offend anyone—and Donalds’ own crusade against the teaching of critical race theory.
The question is: Can a 170-year old novel that is arguably an important part of American history even be taught in Florida schools now?
When President Abraham Lincoln met author Harriett Beecher Stowe in 1862 he’s reported to have said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
While Stowe didn’t actually start the war (after all, she didn’t fire the first shot at Fort Sumter), the impact of her novel was indisputable.
Given the size of the audience at the time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have been the best-selling book in American history. By the end of the nineteenth century it was second in sales only to the Bible.
Its impact at the time of its publication was explosive. It put the issue of slavery on the front burner of American politics and discussion. It brought home to Americans slavery’s cruelty and inhumanity. It boosted abolitionism and discredited the pro-slavery intellectual arguments. It did this from its opening scene in which a young black child is about to be sold away from his mother so his master can pay off a debt.
The novel’s power comes from its vivid depiction of the impact of slavery on individuals and their responses to it. It portrayed slavery’s cruel twisting of the most fundamental human relationships, between parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, not just among blacks but among whites as well.
In a moving, compelling way, it revealed slaves as human beings with emotions and characters, with whom readers could identify. But its greater point was that slaves were Christians with Christian souls and were facing persecution for it.
Central to doing this is the character of Uncle Tom, an older slave who embodies fundamental Christian values of love, piety, forbearance, patience, self-sacrifice and humility—as well as conscience, empathy and ultimately, deep principle. It’s his commitment to Christian principles and faith that leads to his death at the hands of a brutal master, Simon Legree, a transplanted Yankee whose worst instincts are sharpened and encouraged by his embrace of slavery.
After serialization, the story was published as a book on March 20, 1852. It was an instant bestseller, so much so that the publisher had difficulty running the presses to keep up with demand. In the South it caused outrage and was denounced as false, or as it might be put contemporarily, “fake news.” One bookseller was hounded out of town for selling it and the book was banned in southern communities, the first such ban in the United States.
Long-suffering Uncle Tom was a controversial character from the time the work was published. Even at the outset he was criticized for his submissiveness and forbearance. In the 1960s as the civil rights movement gained momentum and sought to mobilize blacks to actively assert their rights, “Uncle Tom” became an epithet, shorthand for inactivism, indifference and passivity.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be said to have been the first “woke” novel—and “woke” in the literal sense that it woke Americans up to the nature of slavery.
Of course, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has declared Florida “the place where woke goes to die” and he is doing his best to kill whatever he considers to be “woke.”
On April 22, 2022 DeSantis signed House Bill 7, the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act.
Promoted and pushed by DeSantis, the Stop WOKE Act, among other things, prohibits advocacy of any kind of discrimination in teaching. But it also prohibits teaching in which “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”
Part of the anti-woke effort, and the Anti-WOKE Act, is an attempt to banish the teaching of critical race theory (CRT). This is an academic theory that racial discrimination has pervasively shaped legal and social institutions. Largely confined to academia, CRT became a favored target of conservatives in the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
Locally, Donalds has been an outspoken critic of CRT, denouncing it in the media and targeting the Collier County school system, warning educators at a press conference on Aug. 3, 2021 that they were being watched for any signs of it in classrooms.
Donalds’ fullest attack on critical race theory was expressed in a July 5, 2021 op-ed titled “Divisive critical race theory spits on the Civil Rights Movement” that appeared in the conservative Washington Times newspaper.
“Those proposing this wicked curriculum would like to live in an America where every American is judged based on the color of their skin and not the content of their character, which, if I remember my history correctly, is the complete opposite of the teachings of Dr. King and decades of civil rights progress and commitment to creating a more perfect union,” he wrote. “Today, radical leftists are upending this longstanding American virtue to push this un-American and divisive agenda.”
He also cosponsored a bill in the last Congress, House Resolution 397, which declared CRT prejudicial. The bill never advanced past the introductory stage.
The Anti-WOKE Act has been blocked in court. On Nov. 10, 2022, Chief US District Judge Mark Walker halted its implementation in a 138-page opinion that denounced it for supposedly allowing academic freedom—but only for opinions of which the state government approved. “This is positively dystopian,” he wrote. The state is appealing the ruling.
On Jan. 18, the presidents of Florida’s college system issued a statement rejecting “the progressivist higher education indoctrination agenda,” and committing to “removing all woke positions and ideologies by February 1, 2023”—the beginning of Black History Month, according to the Florida Department of Education.
DeSantis and the state Department of Education took another step toward imposing their view of history when on Jan. 22 they disapproved of an advanced placement course in black history for Florida students.
“We wanted to give a comprehensive view of the culture, literature, historical development, political movements, social movements,” Christopher Tinson, the chair of the African American Studies department at Saint Louis University, who helped formulate the course, told National Public Radio.
DeSantis denounced the course and defended Florida’s decision to ban it. “We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them,” he said in a press conference on Jan. 23. He denounced the course for allegedly attempting to “indoctrinate” students and pursue a political agenda.
A place for Uncle Tom?
Between the Anti-WOKE Act and the effort to stamp out CRT, can Uncle Tom’s Cabin be taught in Florida schools? Can it even be mentioned in the state as part of American history?
After all, there is no book that is more likely to induce “guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress” than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Indeed, that was what Harriet Beecher Stowe set out to do.
This particular topic hasn’t been high on anyone’s agenda to date, so there hasn’t been any real debate so far.
But how Uncle Tom’s Cabin is taught in Florida, or if it can even be mentioned, is an interesting litmus test of the state-imposed view of history. How far will DeSantis and his allies go to impose their own indoctrination on the state and its teachers and students? Will they even allow teaching the Civil War at all? That event made many people uncomfortable.
The fight in Florida is a complex one that involves principles of academic freedom and the propriety of legislating culture. It is also a question of whether the state will teach history that accords with facts or a version that might be called “fake history,” supporting a politician’s presidential ambitions and the prejudices of his followers. In all of this, producing students who can be considered educated and prepared for the world seems a secondary consideration.
In another great novel, 1984, the Party had as one of its central tenets: “He who controls the past controls the future: he who controls the present controls the past.”
As this year’s Black History Month dawns, the educational battle in Florida is over who will control the past and future. And Uncle Tom’s Cabin speaks to the core of that debate every bit as much today as it did 170 years ago.
Special to Big Mouth Media from The Paradise Progressive. Originally published on February 1, 2023.