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Bowdoin Exhibit Explores Racist Images Spawned by Anti-Slavery Novel
02/18/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

An exhibition of controversial images and objects associated with Uncle Tom's Cabin is on display at Bowdoin College in Brunswick - the town where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote much of the groundbreaking mid-19th century novel. With its anti-slavery message, the book is often credited as one of the factors that helped bring about the Civil War. The novel also spawned a wealth of spinoff musical shows, stage productions and images portraying African-Americans in what could be considered a racist light.  Tom Porter reports.

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Bowdoin Exhibit Explores Racist Images
Originally Aired: 2/18/2014 5:30 PM
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The exhibit, which consists of hundreds of illustrations, cartoons, photographs and other artifacts, mostly from the 19th and early 20th century, was judged to be too disturbing to be put on display at a British university. They're now at Bowdoin's Hawthorne-Longfellow Library in a show titled "Visualizing Uncle Tom."

Bowdoin Literature Professor Tess Chakkalakal teaches a course on the social and cultural effects of the novel. She says the show examines what she calls the "racist afterlife" of Uncle Tom's Cabin, with many of the images portraying black people either as caricatures of themselves - or in certain cases, something else.

"You see the black figures, particularly the black female figures, dressed in almost pornographic images," Chakkalakal says.

For example, one black and white illustration, published in 1852, shows a bare-breasted woman kneeling down being beaten: The caption reads "George's Sister Whipped for Wishing to Live a Decent Christian Life."

Also on display are numerous images and photos from the early 20th century associated with the book's many stage adaptations.

"The minstrel performances of Uncle Tom, the 'Tom Shows' as they came to be called, those images of the black characters of the novel are also increasingly offensive," Chakkalakal says, "particularly the ones of Topsy."

Uncle Tom's Cabin 3Topsy is the young, singing, dancing slave girl purchased by one of the novel's slave-owning characters. Several images portray Topsy using racist stereotypes:  One image in particular shows distorted facial features, making her look more animal than human. These images, says Chakkalakal, would not have been popular with the author.

"Stowe herself did not want the novel visualized," she says. "The language itself, Stowe probably would have said, is visual enough - the way she wrote."

Another important thing to bear in mind, she says, is that although it is a pioneering piece of anti-slavery literature, Uncle Tom's Cabin could be described as a racist novel by today's standards - and that's reflected in the images on display.

Tess Chakkalakal: "It's the novel itself, the way she wrote her characters, that produces what people are calling these racist images. The novel is very much implicated in the racial rhetoric of the time. So she describes her characters as a 'full glossy black', or the dancing figures of the young black characters like little Harry and Topsy. This is all coming right out of her novel, so it's not as if you can really separate, as some people would like to, the images from the novel."

Tom Porter:  "So it shows up, really, that someone liberal by the standards of those days would today be viewed as a racist reactionary."

Tess Chakkalakal: "Yep, absolutely."

"The way in which stereotypes operate is complex," says Richard Ellis, professor of American Studies at Birmingham University in England. "It's important for people to recognize how stereotyping is something that bears within it often deeply damaging implications - in this instance a racist connotation."

Most of the items on display at Bowdoin are from Ellis's personal collection, which he amassed over the last 35 years. The authorities at Birmingham University decided the images were too controversial to put on public display. Bowdoin College did not feel the same way, however, and Ellis says he's happy to have the exhibit taking place in the same town where Stowe had lived and conceived the novel.

Uncle Tom's Cabin 1Ellis says the way in which Uncle Tom's Cabin has been visually represented over the years has simplified, and in some cases distorted, the book's meaning and its central message. Take, for example, the character of Uncle Tom himself: Many illustrations depict Tom as elderly, benign and submissive - and as Ellis points out, the phrase "Uncle Tom" has often been used by African-Americans to describe blacks who are viewed as being too subservient to white people.

But in the novel, Tom is not an old man, and his later actions - in particular the way he stands up to vicious plantation owner Simon Legree - show him to be far from submissive.

"He refuses to betray his fellow slaves, he refuses to whip his fellow slaves," Ellis says. "He acts in revolt against the kinds of impositions that Lagree in particular is seeking to impose on him."

The exhibition "Visualizing Uncle Tom" will be on display at Bowdoin's Hawthorne-Longfellow Library until May 31.

Photos:  Courtesy Bowdoin College  Hawthorne-Longfellow Library                                 
 

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