Pro-slavery scholars and politicians responded to the abolitionist movement by getting even more extreme. For example, the scientist Samuel Morton started arguing that white people are smarter because their skulls are bigger, even though they’re not. In 1844, South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun ran for president on an angry pro-slavery platform. William Lloyd Garrison wanted to strike back by showing white people what slavery was actually like. So, he met Frederick Douglass, an escaped former slave, and published his memoirs. Many other formerly enslaved people started telling their stories, too. Sojourner Truth was one of the first women to do so.
Kendi’s research shows that the history of American racism is really like a long series of back-and-forth campaigns between racists and antiracists. Every time antiracists make progress—like in the abolition movement—racists strike back. In this case, they spread new racist ideas, cloaked in new scientific language. And every time racists innovate, antiracists respond in kind: Frederick Douglass told his story to try and make white people empathize with enslaved people instead of slaveholders.
But then, a white woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe outdid everyone else with a book of her own: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In her book, a slave named Tom falls in love with his master’s daughter and finds Christianity. Stowe suggested that Black people were better Christians than white people, who were corrupt because of slavery. Her story was racist because it portrayed Black men as weak, but it was also very popular, and it convinced a lot of white people to become abolitionists.
The white public was more willing to read a white woman writing about slavery than the works of actual enslaved people. But while Stowe’s assimilationist ideas were racist, they were also very useful in the fight for abolition. Like Garrison’s early work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin highlights the difficult truth that racist ideas can actually be a force for good—when deployed in the right circumstances. For instance, when racists won’t listen to antiracist ideas, they still might listen to less harmful racist ideas than the ones they already believe.