A brief explanation of this blog's purpose and principles can be found here.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Motherhood as Unifier: “It Don’t Matter If You’re Black or White”

Throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe depicts slave women who face the terrible fear of being separated from their children. In describing these instances, she gives varying perspectives on these separations, from the white slave-owners who attempt to take children away from their mothers to the slave mothers who suffer the loss of one of their greatest loves. The fact that Stowe continually addresses slave mothers and their children suggests that there is something important Stowe wants readers to consider about what it means to be a mother. Stowe seems to use the idea of slave mothers being separated from their children as a way to demonstrate that black women are just as human as white women by how they feel about their children, (which is a good excuse to reminisce about the Michael Jackson song, “It Don’t Matter If You’re Black or White.”) Stowe uses relationships between mothers and children throughout the novel, particularly for slaves, to demonstrate the great love that women, regardless of race, have for their children. These instances in the text as well as Stowe’s own views toward being a mother suggest that motherhood is a unifying force that allows women to recognize their similarities, particularly their great love for their children, rather than their differences, such as their race.

We are introduced to the dilemma of separating slave mothers from their children in the first chapter of the novel when Mr. Haley tries to convince Mr. Shelby to sell young Harry to him (9). Mr. Shelby seems to believe that there is something human in a slave having a child, even though slaves were sometimes regarded as “things” in that time period (18). He says, “I would rather not sell him…the fact is, sir, I’m a humane man, and I hate to take the boy from his mother, sir” (9). Knowing Mr. Shelby to be a kind man and master to his slaves, we might assume that in claiming to be “humane” in this instance, he did not want to take Harry away from Eliza because he knew how much she, as a mother, cared for her son.

On the other hand, Mr. Haley seems to see the situation in a different light. He says, “It is mighty onpleasant getting on with women, sometimes. I al’ays hates these yer screechin’ screemin’ times” (9). Haley then suggests that Mr. Shelby send Eliza away while the transaction for her son takes place, so that the separation will not be as upsetting for her. Haley’s idea of “the humane thing” refers to the way in which these matters are handled (10). He seems to believe that slave women who are deprived of their children overcome the grief at the initial separation if the matter is handled correctly and even claims, “These critters an’t like white folks, you know; they gets over things, only manage right” (Stowe 10). Here, Haley implies that if white women were put in the same situation, they would never be able to overcome their devastation, but he seems to feel black women do not have lasting feelings about their young. By referring to black women as “critters,” Haley implies that they are animalistic and inhuman and would easily forget their young, unlike real human beings (aka “white folks”).

Stowe seems to demonstrate her own opinion on the matter when she interjects the narrative following Mr. Shelby’s laughter at Haley’s talk with this statement: “Perhaps you laugh too, dear reader; but you know humanity comes out in a variety of strange forms nowadays, and there is no end to the odd things that humane people will say and do” (11). Through referring to Haley’s statements as “odd,” Stowe suggests that Haley’s viewpoints are abnormal and strange. Also, by having Mr. Shelby, and possibly the reader, laugh at Haley, Stowe suggests that this particular viewpoint toward black women, particularly black mothers, cannot be taken seriously. Stowe seems to believe that black mothers would feel just as deeply for their children as any white mother.

A look into Stowe’s life demonstrates her great love for her children and how her own role as a mother helped her to feel compassion toward other mothers who may have lost or been separated from their children. In a letter to Eliza Cabot Follen, Stowe writes, “I HAVE BEEN the mother of seven children, the most beautiful and most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.” Here, Stowe explicitly relates her own loss as a mother to the loss that slave mothers experience when their children are taken from them, and she explicitly recognizes that slave mothers not only have feelings, but also that their feelings may be similar to the feelings she experienced when her child was taken away. Stowe also explains the result this experience had on her: “I allude to this here because I have often felt that much that is in that book had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrow of that summer. It has left now, I trust, no trace on my mind except a deep compassion for the sorrowful, especially for mothers who are separated from their children” (letter). Stowe suggests through this statement that her own experience with the loss of a child led to her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For Stowe, there seems to have been some powerful feelings associated with being a mother that gave her common ground to equally relate with slaves who had lost their children. It seems Stowe's own experience helped her to recognize the inhumanity of taking any mother away from her child and united her with slave women everywhere in trying to prevent these inhumane acts from continuing.

For more information about mothers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, click here.

For additional resources and information about Uncle Tom's Cabin and its effects on society, click here.


  1. Are you suggesting that Michael Jackson was a woman, because that's not a very original claim. :) Just kidding. This post actually speaks well of the issue of equality in motherhood. I think that Stowe uses the role of woman, especially mothers to tug on the heartstrings of her readers. Personally, I think it's very effective.

  2. I agree that this use of women and mothers is effective. Stowe even has some of the African American characters that are indistinguishable from whites. There are a few slaves that she said would have been hard to tell that they were not white. She also speaks about how some of the black slaves become motherly/familial types to white children (like George to Tom and his wife) and how some of the black slaves look to their masters in the same way (like Eva towards Mrs. Shelby).

  3. Motherhood isn't something that I initially thought about, or struck me about UTC, though now that you bring it up, it's interesting to consider.

    Aunt Chloe plays 'mom' to George(is that the little master's name?). And in a way, Mrs. S plays a kind of mom to Eliza; teaching and bringing her up. It doesn't matter what race you are, it's all about the act of mothering.