191 Stowe was White

Delaney John-Zensky

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a white woman. Somehow I didn’t know this until I finished reading the experts of the text we were given, and was curious so I looked it up. I knew Melville was white before I read Benito Cereno and I knew Douglass was black before I read The Heroic Slave. Now I know that Stowe was a white woman and that makes more sense to me, so do her ways of encouraging sympathy from a white reader. 

Douglass’ character of Madison Washington is unapologetically black. He is described fully on page 7 of the text, saying that “[h]is whole appearance betokened Herculean strength” and “His broad mouth and nose spoke only of food nature and kindness” and that he could “terrify as well as charm.” his brow was described as “dark and glossy as the raven’s wing.” Douglass does not hide the color of his hero; he paints him in a way that shows that even as a black man, Madison can still be full of goodness. 

Stowe’s characters of George and Eliza on the other hand, are both beautiful and handsome, but are pale, or even white passing. George is described as a “bright, and talented young mulatto man” and then later, “this young man was in the eye of the law, not a man, but a thing” (10). George is then put in a position where his master is going to make him marry another woman, after Stowe has already described the grandness of his wedding to Eliza. I imagine this succeeded in making a white audience even more appalled at this treatment of something as important as marriage. George, instead of doing this and facing the terrible treatment of his master, decides to run away, suggesting that he would rather die than not be able to live free. 

Eliza is said to have a “fine moulded shape” and is a “fine female article” and share the same attractive traits as her son (6). Then, later we find out that she is “so white as not to be known as of colored lineage, without a critical survey, and her child was white also, it was much easier for her to pass on unsuspected” (35, 36). Eliza, a beautiful slave with a positive relationship with her mistress, is able to pass as white. 

The treatment of George and Eliza poses the question to a white reader, of if skin color actually affects someone’s ability to be owned, especially if they are pale and feel the same human emotions that fully white people do. In fact, Stowe puts the reader in Eliza’s position by posing a question, saying: “If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning […] how fast could you walk?” (34). Stowe is trying to make it as easy as possible for a white reader to be able to put themselves in the position of an intelligent and headstrong Geroge, or a loving mother like Eliza, and part of this ease comes from the fact that they are not as dark as “the raven’s wing.”

Overall, it is easy to see why Uncle Tom’s Cabin became so popular and gave the northern white abolitionists even more reason to fight. Stowe presents her characters in a way that relates them as much as possible to the white audience, to show that there is no difference between the two, while Douglass seems to embrace the difference of skin color, while also promoting black freedom.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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

Share This Book