Tag Archives: racism

Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Incredibly influential, sadly inaccessible.
411 pages, ★★

How dare I give just two stars to a classic?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a novel about slaves in 19th century America. I’ve summarised the story into a character map below.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Character Map

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for white people. I say this because it doesn’t dwell on the struggles, the emotional turmoil, the fear and loathing of whites that slaves faced; nor does it stir up revolution. Rather, it tells a realistic, emotionally-restrained story of two Christian slaves who stay unwaveringly loyal despite extreme social injustice.

While the book itself has no political ideology, it was one of the most politically influential books in American history; and possibly of all time. It spread rapidly—one in six adult Americans owned a copy—and was the best-selling novel in American history at the time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin stimulated the growing impetus to abolish slavery to such an extent that 50 years later, author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bust was placed alongside that of Washington, Franklin and Lincoln in New York’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Even President Abraham Lincoln made references to “that lady” who “started the great Civil War”. Many writers argue that this novel played a significant role in the abolition of slavery in America.

Most interesting is that according to a poll conducted in 1946, the majority of Negroes surveyed by Negro Digest considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin “anti-Negro” since it “presented the black in a submissive, docile, cringing role, portraying him as less than a man”. While their description is definitely true, it seems ironic that the American black population would grow to resent the book that had quite possibly set them free.

In conclusion, this is a fascinating book, and is one that everyone interested in history should know about. So why only two stars? It’s told in such dated English that I struggled to enjoy it. Read literary criticisms instead. ★★

Book: To Sir, With Love

To Sir With Love
Also a popular 1967 film

Great story, poor character development.
185 pages, ★★

Rick Braithwaite, a black military officer from Guyana (then British Guiana), receives a horrible shock after leaving the army. Even though he was highly respected as a soldier in British uniform, dozens of employers now reject him because he’s “too black”. Finally, one school accepts him despite his skin colour.

I strongly believe that racism is rooted in classism. Braithwaite summarises the views of the British on page vii:

“The few West Indians who did occupy the streets of England would, despite the prejudice they endured, have far more in common with white, working-class people than with this Cambridge-educated former [army] officer.”

Reading that, this speech/song sprung to mind.

Racism is also a scapegoat for classism. This is strongly supported on page 37:

“It is true that here and there one sees Negroes as doctors, lawyers or talented entertainers, but they are somehow considered ‘different’ and not to be confused with the mass.”

Most strikingly, when people of different races are of the same class (such as in some universities), racial oppression simply melts away. It doesn’t matter what race you are as long as you’re rich, well-connected and well-read. However, when people of the same race are of different social class, the symptoms of racism emergeostracism, bullying, derision, and so on. Classism, not racism, is evidently the root of these problems.

The U.S. now has programmes like Troops to Teachers, which fast-track army veterans like Braithwaite into teaching positions. Veterans provide the discipline, respect and structured lifestyles that are considered elixirs for America’s dilapidated high schools.

I have one complaint: this novel has too many superfluous characters. So many characters, so little interaction. See the character map below.

To Sir With Love Character Map
So many characters, so little interaction! Click to enlarge.

Important characters are also introduced at the last minute, as and when they’re needed. We never really get to know any of the characters other than protagonist Braithwaite, and some characters exist only for one paragraph. The characters aren’t the highlight of this novel, though. The most important aspect is the message that racism exists, and that it can be transformed.

To Sir With Love should be compulsory reading for schoolchildren. It’s easier to relate to than the other school-time favourite, To Kill A Mockingbird, yet the two books’ treatises on racism are of equal caliber. The accompanying discussion also provides a valuable lesson for kids. ★★