187 How to Depict a Black Character… by Depicting Them as “Not all Black”

Brittany John

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicts its white characters in a very different way in the beginning of the novel.  The audience is introduced to Mr. Shelby and Haley, and they are two very different people.  Stowe practically writes an entire paragraph about Haley and writes, “He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world” (Chapter 1).  Stowe depicts Haley in a negative light by calling his features “common” and saying he has a “pretension” that only low men have when they are desperately trying to get to the top.  That isn’t exactly the best way to be described as a person.  Stowe goes on to talking about Mr. Shelby and writes, “His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman” (Chapter 1).  Now, even though “appearance of a gentleman” isn’t defined, it has a much more positive connotation than anything that was said about Haley.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s depictions are similar to The Heroic Slave’sin the way that the slaves that are the favorites of the masters get a much more detailed depiction, and they receive a much more positive depiction; they are depicted as beautiful.  Madison Washington in The Heroic Slave was depicted as this man that no one should be scared of.  He is depicted as strong, and herculean.  Madison is depicted as a hero.  The master’s favorites in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are also depicted as “not all Black.”  Stowe writes,

“A small quadroon boy…entered the room.  There was something in his appearance remarkably beautiful and engaging.  His black hair, fine as floss silk, hung in glossy curls about his round, dimpled face, while a pair of large dark eyes, full of fire and softness, looked out from beneath the rich, long lashes, as he peered curiously into the apartment” (Chapter 1).

I think it’s important to note what “quadroon” means in this passage.  It means “a person who is one-quarter black by decent”.  This is what I mean by depicted as “not all black.”  Stowe makes it a point to depict this black character as “not all black”, maybe because then it’s okay to depict them as beautiful?

I think that the depictions of the black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells us that even though Mr. Shelby is a nicer man than Haley, he still isn’t all that great.  In The Heroic Slave, the audience could tell that Mr. Listwell cared about Madison; he cared about what happened to Madison and he hated that Madison had to go through what he had to go through.  In that story, we see a white character who cares (whether he cared about just Madison or cared about Black people as a whole is a completely different story).  I don’t think we have that character that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I think it just tells us to always be wary of the white characters (the masters) because they can’t be trusted as good people.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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

Share This Book