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Rowan Finnegan Cummings

While African-American characters are the heroes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is also important to note the fact that the novel supports quite a few 19th-century black stereotypes. Stowe’s overall message about abolition and the true immoral nature of slavery was revolutionary for her time, especially when compared to previous works of literature depicting African-American characters (such as Benito Cereno), but that didn’t stop her from working in various stereotypes that were simply second nature at that time.

In Benito Cereno, African American characters, such as Babo, are portrayed as being quiet, obedient, perfect servants; that is, until they are given the chance to take control. They then are vicious killers who must be kept under the control of white men, lest they rise up and massacre every white individual in sight. Babo, who is decidedly the most important African American character in Benito Cereno, is presented as such a perfect slave that other men envy his master, continuously commenting on how wonderful it must be to have such a dedicated slave. However, it is revealed later that Babo was running everything the whole time, and he is undoubtedly morphed into a villainous creature bent on killing all of the white individuals and taking control of the ship.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the African American characters are portrayed as being equal to the white characters; at least, in theory. They are not separated from the white characters when it comes to having real personality characteristics, but they do fall into stereotypes of their time. The stereotypical black characters (such as “Mammy”) are not portrayed negatively, but are stereotypical nonetheless. And, while many of the African American characters are much more noble and, well, human, than many of the white characters, they are still subservient and almost childlike in comparison.

So, while Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a huge step forward for African American characters in literature, the steps forward do not negate the racial stereotypes that keep the novel at a standstill.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Rowan Finnegan Cummings is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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