Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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What an uplifting, pleasant surprise it was to find this classic here in prison, and to read it for my first time ever. If memory serves, when I was in grade and even high school (in the 60s), in the midwestern city I grew up in, this book had been removed from the shelves. It was referred to many times however, by our teachers. All I “knew” about it was 1) it contained a lot of the “N” word, and 2) Uncle Tom was a pathetic character, with no redeeming qualities. I also knew that when Pres. Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he (was supposed to have) said, “So, here’s the little woman who started the great war.”

The book was encouraging to me for these reason:

1) It reminded me of an evil that eventually came to be corrected, when public opinion passed it’s tipping point. It added to my hope that the particular evil I am most concerned with can also be defeated.
2) It was profoundly written. (And masterfully)
3) It is the best kind of propaganda. (Which is a morally neutral term.)
4) It introduced me to a fictional embodiment of all that I believe the Bible teaches about Christ-likeness. I’m talking, of course, about Uncle Tom, though the book contains an ample assortment of noble, commendable characters.
5) As one who pretends to be a writer with a cause, it was highly, and manifoldly instructive.

Here are two examples of dialogue which is used to present some of the central dynamics in the fight against legal slavery-

[The young, courageous and brilliant runaway slave, George, is the book’s counterpoint to Uncle Tom. Here he converses with Simeon, an abolitionist and active participant in the underground railroad.]

1– “I hope, my good sir, that you are not exposed to any difficulty on our account.”, said George, anxiously.
“Fear nothing, George, for therefore are we sent into the world. If we would not meet trouble for a good cause, we are not worthy of our name.”
“But, for me,” said George, “I could not bear it.”
“Fear not, then, friend George; it is not for thee, but for God and man we do it,” said Simeon.

[The argument against a moderate view over against as regards slavery, is set in a genteel parlor. Simon Lagree had just announced to any who cared to hear, his vulgar philosophy on the micro-economics of slave-holding.]

2– The stranger turned away, and seated himself beside a gentleman, who had been listening to the conversation with repressed uneasiness.
“You must not take that fellow to be any specimen of Southern planters,” said he.
“I should hope not,” said the young gentleman, with emphasis.
“He is a mean, low, brutal fellow!” said the other.
“And yet your laws allow him to hold any number of human beings subject to his absolute will, without even a shadow of protection; and, low as he is, you cannot say that there are not many such.”
“Well,” said the other, “there are also many considerate and humane men among planters.”
“Granted,” said the young man; “but, in my opinion, it is your considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour. If there were no planters except such as that one,” said he, pointing with his finger to Lagree, who stood with his back to them, “the whole thing would go down like a mill stone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality.”

In recommending this book as being relevant to the prisoner’s circumstance, I have a few ideas for that in mind. On a simple, factual level it depicts a society divided- between the slave and the free, but also a society of free men divided along lines of morality. It also depicts the excruciating experience of forced separation of families. But there are two more thoughts about the book that force themselves on me.

One is the parallel of both the system of slavery then and the system of mass incarceration now, whereby citizens who have offended our nation’s voluminous administrative laws are made into felons. Connected with this societal foolishness is “over-sentencing”- giving far greater sentences than justice (which is not the same as the “law”) requires.

I just assert this here, and will leave the arguing of it for another time. I wish only now to make the analogy, so as to point out, that just as slavery had its demise, so too might this.

There is one last parallel that can be made, and that is between how (as Stowe has the young man above argue) the more humane slave owner upholds the whole slave system and how the more ‘humane’ prison”camps” supports the whole federal prison system, and in particular the over-felonization of society. How much more heat would be put on our political leaders, if Aunt Sally or Uncle Bill were in medium-security cells after being indicted for obscure administrative law infractions? (Not that this doesn’t happen- read Licensed to Lie, by Sidney Powell for examples).

It seems I’ve now propagandized propaganda. Probably a federal law against that! (Depriving the general public of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “honest services”?)