Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811. As protests rage throughout the US, her 19th century classic serves as a stark reminder of how it all started
I was a fourth grade student when I first read Uncle Tom's Cabin. I remember that it was during summer vacation and all my friends were somehow busy. Running out of things to do, I browsed through our bookshelf and picked up the book.
I was too young to understand the theme, motives or symbols in the book. Neither did I have any idea that it was the second best seller after the Bible during the 19th century, nor did I have any clue that the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had played a part in a war through the book.
All that I picked up was that human beings were in shackles and treated worse than anything, and I cried hysterically when Uncle Tom died. The reason behind the inhumane treatment of these people was the colour of their skin. My child self was convinced that the story was some kind of fairy tale or myth.
But my father broke the truth to me and said that all that was in the book were real life depictions of people with dark skin. At the same time, he assured me that all that was in the past now as slavery has been abolished and black people are treated equally.
Growing up watching advertisements of fairness creams in a society that worships fair skin tones, I already began to understand that there are different shades of grey between having equal rights on papers and in reality.
After all these years, when a African-American man named George Floyed was killed in police custody and the movement "Black Lives Matter" resurfaced, I realised once again that we still have a long way to go to achieve a world that is free from systematic discrimination.
The incident made me decide to write a review of the legendary novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" - a creation of Harriet Beecher Stowe, to understand the racial prejudice against people of colour better.
The novel was published in 1852 prior to the American civil war that took place from 1861 to 1865, as a result of the enslavement of black people.
From a bird's eye view, the novel is about the plight of African-American people who were being used and exploited as slaves.
However, the deeper you get into that book, the more you will be amazed at the author's ability to persuade the readers into questioning the absurdity of an existing system that dehumanizes a whole human race based on their skin colour and tries to justify it using religious scripture.
For example, the protagonist of the novel, known as Uncle Tom, is portrayed as a Christ-like figure who is full of faith, patience and integrity. The story revolves around how he gets sold to different masters and how his fate depends on their hands.
Despite getting tortured, beaten and subjugated, he does not revolt against them nor does he question the creator for the injustice that is happening to him. He remains strong through the events, makes best use of what he has, befriends an angel-like child, Eva, and persists with his faith in Christianity.
In contrast to Uncle Tom's all enduring archetype, there are characters like Eliza and George Harris who decide to fight back the injustice and attempt to "flee to the north". After bypassing dangerous traps, they become successful in their attempt. The dangers they face help the readers understand the underlying criticisms against a bill passed back in those days that made helping the fleeing slaves illegal.
During the 20th and 21st century, the character of Uncle Tom has been represented as cowardly for remaining silent and enduring mistreatment at the hands of his white masters. But I felt the portrayal was probably necessary two centuries ago to arouse the masses' sentiments against white barbarity.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a perfect balance of diverse characters. It has white slave masters like Mr Shelby - who loves his slaves, St Clare - who knows slavery is ethically wrong, yet does not act on eradicating the system, and masters like Legeree and Haley - who do not find anything ethically and morally wrong with slavery and thinks that black people should be treated as an inferior race. So, they do not hesitate to beat them.
Faith, scepticism, tolerance and the urge to revolt is juxtaposed in the novel.
Where masters are degrading the slaves, the slaves also reacted with rage and frustration. One of the characters, Prue, said that she does not want to go to heaven if white people are going there too.
To the reader's utter shock, the omni-patient protagonist Uncle Tom dies way before the story reaches its ending, leaving them questioning the outcomes of virtue and tolerance.
But the shock eases a bit with the pleasant reunion of other characters and with the declaration of freeing the slaves by one of the good masters in the end.
As the story reaches its ending, I realised the author proved to be way ahead of her time as she did not end the story abruptly with the declaration, and rather focused on the process that will help to make the slaves independent.
The novel ends on a very positive note with George Shelby freeing the slaves and promising them education in order to "use the rights as free men and women".
In the US, slavery was abolished in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the US constitution after the Civil War ended under Abraham Lincoln's administration.
It is reported that upon being introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, Abraham Lincoln fondly commented she was "the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Stowe, on the other hand, said that the book came to her as a message from God and the effort from her part was very little.
Although we do not know how the story actually came into being, we can assume that the author probably did not imagine African-Americans would have to face such grim circumstances centuries after the discriminatory practice of slavery ended. In all likelihood, Stowe did not imagine racial prejudices would persist centuries after its abolishment.
To understand the current protests - defying the Covid-19 pandemic - and their demands, rage and frustration, we must enlighten ourselves with historical knowledge. And Uncle Tom's Cabin is an excellent recommendation.
Today is June 14, the day Harriet Beecher Stowe was born 209 years ago, in 1811. Today we pay tribute to the author's memory for her timeless creation. We pay tribute to her courage for being vocal on behalf of the oppressed, on voicing what is right centuries ago - something many of us are afraid to do even now.