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Uncle Tom & Henrietta

A few months ago, I decided I had to face up to a truth that was haunting me. I had never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m not sure how I could even call myself a “book lover” or well-read without it on the list. A fundamental piece of American literature missing from my mental stacks. It was time to right the wrong.

A small selection of the many covers that Uncle Tom's Cabin has worn.

A small selection of the many covers that Uncle Tom’s Cabin has worn.

Uncle Tom’s cabin was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Northern white abolitionist woman in 1852. It was written and published serially, and was widely read initially and great to become an iconic part of our American history. It’s said that Abraham Lincoln said to Ms. Stowe when he met her at the start of the Civil War, “So this is the little lady that started this great war.” It is a fantastic, fascinating read. Far better than I expected and not just because much of the prose has held up incredibly well, but also because as a piece of our history, you can read it with both an immediacy and a certain distance that helps you see how it functioned in society. If you do pick it up, there’s a fair amount of religion to wade through that can be a bit repetitive (part of serial nature of how it was published), but if you skim those sections, it goes quickly.

Another reason that Ms. Stowe’s novel is so compelling is because it begins with what I have always thought was one of the most pernicious myths of slavery- the “happy” slave. The fictional Uncle Tom is the well-loved and gently treated head slave on a plantation owned by a kind couple. A couple that only own slaves because “that’s how it is” and the woman in particular thinks it’s an evil institution. This is particularly clever as a opening device because it establishes a sympathetic connection between Northern readers and the main characters. These Northern readers that Ms. Stowe wanted to inspire are the type who may have been opposed to slavery on Sundays (on Sundays), but who were lulled into inaction by the myth of the happy slave and benevolent master. Naturally, this myth is deftly exploded and destroyed over the course of the book.

The book steps the reader slowly, even gently into the ever-darker truth of slavery. I can imagine the genteel reader of the mid-1800’s by turns being titillated, horrified, and at the end wondering how did they get here? Of course, the story has a redemptive ending, as the freed & runaway slaves cross into the safety of Canada, aided by the help of brave and pious Quakers. The aim of the book was to make the lives of slaves come alive for the reader and further show that there was a path to freedom. By avoiding projecting the story into the future, she doesn’t directly address the question of abolition in the United States, though her characters discuss it freely.

Henrietta Lacks, a woman  deserving of recognition, comes to life in the brilliant novel by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks, a woman deserving of recognition, comes to life in the brilliant book by Rebecca Skloot.

By coincidence, while reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I began another book that made the experience of reading it all the more relevant and telling. I started to listen to the audio book of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a book that came out in 2010 and had been on my to-read list since shortly after it came out. This non-fiction book chronicles the life and legacy of a young black woman who’s cells (tumor cells) have become one of the most important building blocks of modern medicine and science in the form of “HeLa cells.” The story is incredible on it’s own, and I’d highly recommend the excellent audio book of it, but when read in conjunction with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the two stories paint a vivid history of the black experience in America- both how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

Henrietta’s life experience, her care, her treatment, and the struggles of her children and family, when viewed against a backdrop of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the slavery that was the reality of her parents lives, are an important and humbling window into the black American experience. Of course, the fact that Henrietta’s story is true makes it all the more compelling. While listening, I laughed, I cried, I shook my head at the indignity, and learned a great deal of fascinating science in the process. Ms. Skloot handles a complex story and the even more complex science with care and balances objectivity with deep empathy for her subject.

With the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, among too many others, fresh in our minds and hearts, it’s vitally important for all of us, particularly whites, to understand the historic tapestry of slavery, oppression, fear, discrimination, and exploitation that leads to where we are today. Chris Rock’s recent interview, in which he makes the brilliant observation that the idea of “black progress” is a fallacy and that it’s really “white progress” that needs to be scrutinized, resonates even more strongly when help up against these stories as a backdrop.

I love history and particularly personal histories. Both non-fiction and historically-accurate fiction have the power to teach, heal, and guide us. I have spent a number of years especially engrossed and amazed by the scale of WWII and the people involved, but I am so glad to have traveled deeper into our own US History through these two books.

I highly recommend reading both of them and if you are like me, and enjoy having a couple of books going at the same time- you couldn’t find a more compelling pairing.

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