In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the white master St. Clare tells his cousin, Miss Ophelia, that black people have been put in the service of white people in this world, and that this injustice may perhaps be corrected in the afterlife. Miss Ophelia, presumably voicing the opinion of the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is horrified. Baldwin argues that the characters in the novel never question the simplistic terms within which they frame morality. This corresponds to contemporary morals about racial oppression, which rarely go beyond shallow, righteous indignation. Baldwin concludes that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is “a very bad novel” because of its “virtuous sentimentality.” Sentimentality is dishonest and cowardly, and thus slyly cruel. Stowe fails to interrogate peoples’ reasons for acting the way they do, and for this reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin is more of a “pamphlet” than a novel.
In order to understand Baldwin’s critique of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” it is important to bear in mind that the novel is widely celebrated as a landmark in the history of racial equality and a symbol of progress. In this essay, Baldwin suggests that such praise is unwarranted for a number of reasons, the first of which is that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is not a very good novel. Novels should present us with a complex and honest view of reality that enriches our understanding of the human condition. Instead, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” just rehashes simplistic moral positions.
Baldwin argues that in order for the novel to be more truthful, Stowe would have had to be committed to representing humanity, rather than a “Cause.” He claims that oversimplifying people’s complexity and ambiguity diminishes humanity. Baldwin points out that there are actually fairly few black characters in the book, and that they are either rendered in a stereotypical fashion or are given attributes of whiteness. The controversial character of Uncle Tom, meanwhile, is only redeemed from his blackness through his total humility. Ultimately, Stowe maintains the association of blackness with evil and whiteness with purity. The novel is written out of a fear of damnation and gives the reader a false sense of assurance that they are virtuous simply for reading it. In reality, protest novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin are nothing more than sentimental fantasies that reflect fear, confusion, and denial of truth.
In this passage, Baldwin argues against the assumption that, because “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is an anti-slavery novel, it is automatically racially progressive. While Stowe’s intention may have been to portray black characters in a positive light, she ultimately undermines this goal by preserving the racist principle that virtue is linked to whiteness. Defenders of Stowe might suggest that it would have been difficult to overcome such a mindset as a white woman living in 19th-century America. While this is arguably true, Baldwin’s point that the novel should not be read as a symbol of racial progress still stands.
Baldwin compares the goal of the protest novel to that of white missionaries in Africa. He laments the fact that society is able to convince oppressed people that they are inferior to their oppressors. People often forget that both the oppressed and the oppressor are “bound together” by the same beliefs. This is why many black people themselves continue to associate whiteness with virtue. Baldwin discusses Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, and argues that its central character, Bigger Thomas, is in fact a “descendant” of Stowe’s Uncle Tom. The tragedy of Bigger’s life is that he has accepted the terms of America’s racist ideology, and thus must “battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria.” Protest novels fail because they do not engage the full reality of human existence, instead reducing people to simplistic categories.
Baldwin’s argument that both oppressed and oppressor share the same beliefs is provocative. Many would counter that black people have a totally different perspective on the world than white people, and thus it doesn’t make sense to say both groups hold the same ideas. However, while people of different races do certainly have different perspectives, they nonetheless share the same world—a world saturated with racist ideology. As Baldwin suggests through his discussion of “Native Son,” many black people come to unconsciously believe and replicate racist ideology.