Black Lives and the Journey to Racial Justice (Part I: Literature)
Updated: Mar 17
Smart phones, video recordings and social media. With these, the daily injustices and mortal dangers faced by Black Americans have come more and more to light in recent years. What would previously have remained largely unknown now spreads rapidly among hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands in minutes. This, as I see it, is the good of social media. (There’s been plenty of bad, notably the outcome of the 2016 elections.)
As a girl in India, I read Roots by Alex Haley. The horror of what Kunta Kinte and so many others endured was etched on my mind then and has never left. The greatest injustice on this earth: to enslave other human beings. This deep disquiet has informed my reading and thinking.
Disturbed, disheartened and outraged by the almost daily accounts of police brutality over the past few years, and wanting to learn about how to be more involved in achieving racial justice, I turned to my friends and spoke with them about my interest in this topic. Most are socially aware, ardent readers; many are writers. From them, and from my own readings, I have learned of much that has been written, and how much there is to learn and digest about America’s shameful role in the theft and enslavement of millions of people from Africa. Systems that had been designed to suppress and oppress were put in place then, and remain in place long after 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed to abolish slavery.
Here are some of the books I have learned of, both fiction and non-fiction.
My friend and writer Roshni Rustomji-Kerns told me to read Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ be Alright (Notes on Race and Resegregation). I did. Around the same time, I started reading Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others. Her works of fiction are, of course, legendary.
While walking around the neighborhood I looked into one of the delightful little free libraries that stand like little bird houses in front of some people’s houses. I saw Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and immediately took it. Not long after, a friend gifted me Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black.
And the books also got me thinking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a book that I had not yet read. It was definitely time, I thought, to read the book that was so critical to the abolitionist movement and is said to have been credited by Lincoln as the book that “started this war”, the Civil War.
Nicole Hannah Jones’ distinguished work, The 1619 Project, published in The New York Times to mark the passing of 300 years since the first ship bearing kidnapped, enslaved people landed on American shores, is eye-opening, sobering, heart-breaking.
My friend Sabina Nawaz holds a virtual book club. One of the books was Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race, and more recently, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Other books from Sabina’s book club which I have added to my reading list are White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, Race and Social Change: a Quest, a Study, a Call to Action by Max Klau.
I have read some of them, and wanted to express my thoughts on my readings. I have structured my writings on this topic in two parts. Part I is on the works of fiction, and Part II on non-fiction.
Part I. Literature.
Let me start with the book that affected me deeply in my most recent readings. It was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I read it for the first time, and with every page I turned, I recognize the magnitude of what Stowe achieved with this, her masterwork.
First, the historical context. Annette Gordon-Reed, American historian and professor at Harvard University, wrote a piece in the New Yorker in 2011 about Harriet Beecher Stowe as “The Persuader.”
“By the eighteen-thirties, Southerners were offering the country a new vision of slavery, as a positive good ordained by God and sanctioned by Scripture. Naturally, abolitionists in the North believed that the Bible told them the opposite: slavery offended the basic tenets of Christianity. Each claimed moral authority, hoping to win over the vast majority of citizens who were not activists on either side. Nothing would change in either direction without the support of these uncommitted and wavering citizens. They had to be persuaded that slavery, one way or another, had moral implications for everyone who lived on American soil.
This was the country that Harriet Beecher Stowe addressed in 1852 when she published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly,” one of the most successful feats of persuasion in American history. Stowe’s novel shifted public opinion about slavery so dramatically that it has often been credited with fueling the war that destroyed the peculiar institution. Nearly every consideration of Stowe mentions what Abraham Lincoln supposedly said when he met the diminutive New Englander: “Is this the little woman who made this great war?””
I found analyses of the work, perspectives on how Stowe came to write this book and her persuasiveness, and explanations for how the term Uncle Tom became a pejorative, certainly not derived from the honorable character Stowe portrayed in her book. And I remain in awe and respect.
Stowe was an abolitionist at heart. She was also a staunch Christian. She is clearly the narrator, stating her opinions persuasively.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an extraordinary book, bold, powerful, courageous for its time. The book has well fleshed out characters, and an arresting narrative. Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia :
“The book opens with a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby facing the loss of his farm because of debts. Even though he and his wife Emily Shelby believe that they have a benevolent relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise the needed funds by selling two of them—Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children, and Harry, the son of Emily Shelby's maid Eliza—to a slave trader. Emily Shelby is averse to this idea because she had promised her maid that her child would never be sold; Emily's son, George Shelby, hates to see Tom go because he sees the man as his friend and mentor.
When Eliza overhears Mr. and Mrs. Shelby discussing plans to sell Tom and Harry, Eliza determines to run away with her son. The novel states that Eliza made this decision because she fears losing her only surviving child (she had already miscarried two children). Eliza departs that night, leaving a note of apology to her mistress.
Tom is sold and placed on a riverboat which sets sail down the Mississippi River. While on board, Tom meets and befriends a young white girl named Eva. Eva's father Augustine St. Clare buys Tom from the slave trader and takes him with the family to their home in New Orleans. Tom and Eva begin to relate to one another because of the deep Christian faith they both share.”
Eliza escapes with little Harry, meets up with her husband George Harris, and evading their hunters, eventually escape to Canada.
Uncle Tom is a gentle, kind, gracious, softhearted man, a jewel of a human being. Before his luck takes a turn for the worse, he forms a deep bond with little Eva, daughter of Augustine St. Clair. She is an almost magical child, with a deep and unflinching sense of fairness and morality. Her father, St. Clair, has a similar deep sense of justice and fairness, inherited from his mother, passed down to his daughter.
After Augustine St. Clair dies, Uncle Tom ends up in the hands of Simon Legree, an utterly cruel man. Rather than reveal the whereabouts of two slave women who ran away to escape his cruelty, Uncle Tom remains silent, and faces certain death by the order of Legree to his overseers Sambo and Quimbo.
The compelling economics, and the hypocrisy of many white folk is exposed more and more as the story unfolds. At an auction a New York seller states that he doesn’t like trading in slaves, "and souls of men, but there were $30,000 in the case and that was rather too much money to be lost for a principle."
So why was I so impressed by this book? I admire her argument against slavery: her use of the force of Christianity to underscore the injustice and unChristianity of slavery is a powerful and persuasive one and must have been particularly so at that time. Religion is indeed a powerful tool to reach the minds of people: in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there are accounts of pastors who quoted from the Scriptures to justify slavery. Stowe is doing the opposite, reaching into the churches and temples in every village and town that give comfort and build community, and have the power to change people’s minds. One of her most powerful strategies is to emphasize that the slaves too have souls, and it must have been made Stowe’s anti-slavery message more palatable to her white readership that the redemption of the enslaved people is through becoming Christian.
Christianity is a reigning theme in this book. From when Ava becomes ill, and after she dies, Augustine approaches Christianity. There is a very religious section also philosophical, about death and the afterlife. An emphasis that afterlife is not available if you have not treated others as you would be treated.
As he lies dying, Uncle Tom has a vision of Christ. Thinking of the endurance and suffering of Christ gave him more strength to bear their own. How could one’s own suffering, however intense, compare to the overwhelming image of unimaginable pain and suffering, of Christ on the cross? The pain of Christ, the pain of Uncle Tom, who embraced him unquestioningly: this depiction no doubt humanized Uncle Tom in Stowe’s white readers’ eyes and aided in their conversion to anti-slavery.
Annette Gordon-Reed in her 2011 New Yorker article writes of the death of Stowe’s child and how it led to her powerfully-expressed empathy for Eliza Harris, mother of Harry, as well as Casey. In an account similar to Beloved, a slave woman Casey had a son by her owner Capt. Stewart, and gave him laudanum so he wouldn’t grow up into the horrors of slavery.
“When the couple’s son Charley died, in 1849, at eighteen months, Stowe began, as Reynolds writes, her “fixation on Jesus Christ as the humble sufferer, the grand symbol of the burdens borne by the lowliest members of society.” She explored this theme in a number of short stories and, of course, in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” when she portrayed the title character, an enslaved man, as a Christ figure. She said that losing Charley made her understand “what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.””
As for the unfair caricatures of Uncle Tom and the use of his name as a pejorative, the perspective of Patricia Turner, professor of African-American studies (formerly at UC Davis, now at UCLA) was useful to me. In a National Public Radio interview, she said:
“The climax of the story really comes when Uncle Tom is asked to reveal where two slave women are hiding, who had been sexually abused by their master. And he refuses. Knowing that he is going to be beaten to death, he refused to say where they are. And African-Americans who have read the novel can appreciate what kind of heroism that took for a black man to sign away his life to save two black women.
Unfortunately, the stage depictions don't include that part of the story. They grossly distort Uncle Tom into ….. a man who will do quite the opposite, who will sell out any black man if it will curry the favor of a white employer, a white master, a white mistress. It's that distorted character that is so objectionable to African-Americans."
In another piece, published by UC Davis, Turner talks about the underserved bad rap Uncle Tom got, emphasizing that he was no sell-out:
"Patricia A. Turner, professor of African American and African studies, says the characterizations and the plot in the original novel differ dramatically from their popular-culture depictions. "Almost immediately there were stage shows, musicals, comedies and eventually movies about it," she says. "And few match the novel."
In the novel, Uncle Tom chooses to be beaten to death because he won't tell the white masters the location of two runaway female slaves who have been sexually abused.
"But the slur of 'Uncle Tom' is still leveled at blacks by other blacks as a derogatory term for someone who has acted selfishly or is a sell-out," says Turner, a scholar of 19th and 20th century black culture and folklore and author of "Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Influences on Culture" (1994)."
Astonishingly for me, Stowe brings up reparations! Back in the 1850’s. George Harris, at the start his journey to escape to Canada with Eliza and Harry, expounds on liberty: what it is to a nation, to a man. And in this impassioned speech, he brings up reparations.
In The Origin of Others, the collection of Norton lectures that Toni Morrison delivered at Harvard in 2016, Morrison is clear about who the audience is for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: white people. Giving the example of young master George going to visit Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe and their cabin, she says
“…you need excessive, benign signs of welcome, of safety. Tom’s house is a humble shack, small and right next to the Masters home. Yet for store the white boys entrance needs obvious signs of safe passage. Therefore Stowe describes the entrance as outrageously inviting….”
She goes on to describe the scenes which she says are
“designed to amuse, I think, and reassure the reader that everything in this atmosphere is safe, even amusing and especially kind, generous, and subservient. These are carefully demarcated passages intended to quiet the fearful white reader.
Harriet Beecher Stowe did not write Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Tom and Chloe or any black people to read. Her contemporary readership was white people, those who needed, wanted, or could relish the romance.”
Toni Morrison faults her for tailoring her narrative to ensure the comfort of white folk. I think this was necessary, at the time to change enough people’s minds through a story that drew them in. Her pen was mightier than the sword. And this phrase is the title of a book by historian David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and the Battle for America, on the factors that made Uncle Tom’s Cabin "the most influential novel ever written by an American."
Having read the book that changed America’s course, I highly recommend that you read it as well if you haven’t already.
Reading Toni Morrison is a life changing experience. Through her stories, she teaches you to think. Pulls away the cobwebs of confusion, and replaces them with utter clarity, clarity about fairness and justice. She is the writer I admire and respect the most. I had the good fortune to hear her some years ago at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, in conversation with Michael Krasny of KQED’s forum. It was akin to a pilgrimage!
Of the works of fiction that I have read by Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon is my favorite. A young man, Macon Dead III or “Milkman” journeys south from Michigan to find a rumored bag of gold, and ends up in the town of Shalimar, Virginia. As the children play and sing a song, “Song of Solomon” that he has heard back in Michigan, he recognizes that it is about his family.
In the shock and heartbreak that ensued when Morrison died in 2019, to honor her memory, my friend Sunita and I decided to read one of her books. We picked The Bluest Eye. It’s about how people internalize insults and disparaging comments and develop self-hatred. In that book, a little black girl wants blue eyes because she thinks that people will then see her as beautiful.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a young slave called Topsy recommends to her mistress that she be given a whipping to make her work. Her self-hatred so deep, she feels she is to be despised, and feels contempt towards those who treat her well. This deepest sense of unworthiness is one of the many consequences of slavery, and is heartbreaking. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison explicates this idea.
In The Origin of Others, the collection of Norton lectures that Toni Morrison delivered at Harvard in 2016, she discusses some works of literature, using them to comment on foreignness, “the Other”. She describes the genesis of the plot of her powerful novel Beloved. Margaret Garner was a slave woman who in 1856, attempted to kill her children to spare them the horrors of slavery. She succeeded in killing one. Morrison said, “I decided that the only one with the unquestionable right to judge was the dead child herself, who I named the one word her mother could have afforded to have inscribed on her tombstone, Beloved.”
She goes on to say,
“Compelling as the real Margaret Garner story is, the novels center and spread are the murdered child. Imagining was for me the soul of art and its bones.
Narrative fiction provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination. In this iteration, for me the author, Beloved the girl, the haunter, is the ultimate Other. Clamoring, forever clamoring for a kiss.
I created my own version of the end, which I chose to make hopeful, unlike the sad, disturbing, and true end of Margaret Garner’s life. Re-named and re-drawn as Sethe, my slave mother is encouraged finally to think, even know, that she may be a valuable human in spite of what happened to her and her daughter. “She was my best thing,” she tells Paul D, referring to Beloved. He says, no, “you are your best thing.” She questions it: “Me? Me?” She is not certain, but at least the idea interests her. So there is the possibility of union, of peace, of having no need for regret.”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a gripping story, starting in a slave plantation in Georgia. The protagonist is Cora, a “stray” child who was left behind by her mother, Mabel, when she was just 10 years old. Mabel ran away and was never found. Many thought she found her way to Canada. We don’t hear her story until the very end.
These are the people in the book. Cora, Caesar who invites her to flee the cotton plantation with him, the Randolph brothers who owned the plantation (Terence being exceptionally cruel), Ridgeway, son of a blacksmith who finds purpose and profit as a slave catcher, Royal, a free man whom Cora grows to love, Valentine who establishes a wondrous, idyllic form in Indiana, and the white folk who risk their lives, often paying with them for the Underground Railroad: Sam, Martin, Fletcher.
Cora is determined, with a deep sense of right and wrong, and puts herself gravely at risk to do what she believes is right, standing between a young boy and an overseer wielding his whip. Her journey in search of freedom - from Georgia to South Carolina to Virginia and onwards - is fraught with much danger and certain death if discovered.
Colson Whitehead’s has written a story that must be told – by many, over and over again, so society understands the cost of its evil acts, and the need for recompense, reparations. And not only the cost of the acts, but learns of the acts themselves. The lynchings. The burning alive of persons. The hanging up of bodies as deterrents. The chopping off of limbs. Of other body parts. Castrations. The weekly gatherings at parks, where the entertainment for the day was the hanging of a negro.
Whitehead’s narrative, however, gave me pause, off and on. The author’s voice – observations and opinions - is inserted in ways that throw off the narrative. There are observations and opinions that are not convincingly Cora’s. Not that I mind, but an implication would have been more powerful than being fed an op-ed in the middle of a gripping story.
There are some anachronisms: there is a syphilis study as well as eugenics, somewhat before the time that these evils actually took place, although the imaginings of such evils is certainly not a surprise.
In Underground Railroad, Cora grows up hating her mother for leaving her. What happened to her mother is revealed towards the end in a deeply moving section.
I browsed the web for reviews. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times was unreservedly admiring. In browsing and link-hopping, I chanced upon a 2008 op-ed piece by Colson Whitehead in the New York Times, An Ode to the Skinny Black Guy, upon the election of Barack Obama. Hilarious! From other writings and some interviews, it seems he had only recently come to accept the mantle of “representing black America,” having declined / denied it earlier.
Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan shines with a luminous, beautiful writing, poetic prose, detailed descriptions, eloquent phrases, rather chaste English. In a consistent voice: that of the narrator. And here too, the great violence and unimaginable horrors inflicted on the slave populations is described unflinchingly.
The plot summary from the back of the book:
“Eleven -year-old Washington Black - or Wash - a field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation is initially terrified when he is chosen to be the manservant of his master's brother. To his surprise, however, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Soon Wash is initiated into a world where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human."
Then, when a man dies, and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, “they must abandon everything and fee. Spanning the Caribbean to the frozen far North, London to Morocco…”
Washington Black is gifted – he has powers of observation and a gift of drawing, which Christopher Wilde, called Titch, discovers and fosters. Titch’s father was a scientist, not in touch with his child’s emotions. In a balloon accident which he and his young son witnessed, a man in a balloon burned as the father described the properties of gases to his shocked son. Later in the book, the scientist Gofwanted to capture an octopus so he could kill it and take it to England where he would show it to others. Washington Black asks, why not take it alive? “The science is wanting,” he is told, and in time, he figures out a way to make it happen. It is a pleasure to read of the natural talents of Wash in science, untrained as he is.
Washington Black’s journey towards freedom seems a little improbable – the almost unbelievable escape from the plantation, the journey to the Arctic, then Nova Scotia. The initial journey is with Titch, and after Titch’s abandonment and after some years, he embarks on a journey in search of Titch.
Titch seems to be a literary descendent of Augustine St. Clair: intellectual, well-intentioned, and not entirely effectual.
It is indeed magical how, and what Washington Black has survived, like Cora. There are many parallels between the books. An evil slave catcher Ridgeway in The Underground Railroad haunts the freedom seekers, as does John Willard in Washington Black. Caesar is her savior, Titch is his. Her evil owner is Terrence Randolph, his is Erasmus Wilde.
Washington Black seems precise and accurate in its timelines and historical context. In 1830 they are at the Faith plantation in Barbados, in 1832 they are adrift. In 1834 slavery ends in the British Caribbean and in 1836 they go to England, where slavery, at least in theory, was a thing of the past, having been abolished in Britain in 1807.
After reading these books, I now see Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece Gone With The Wind in a new light. Having read it as a teenager, the most lingering feeling it evoked it me was admiration: for Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett, who resolved to claw her way out of poverty after the war which left the South impoverished and deprived of its former ways of living. I did not then know much about the war itself; the Civil War that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book did much to ignite.
Margaret Mitchell, when asked in a 1936 interview what her novel was about, replied,
“If Gone With the Wind has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality 'gumption.' So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn't.”
To me this was indeed a gripping theme, along with the extraordinary telling of a great romance between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.
The writer Pat Conroy, in his preface to Gone With the Wind, describes the problems with the book as well as its tremendous achievement.
"Gone with the Wind is as controversial a novel as it is magnificent. Even during its publication year, when Margaret Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize, the book attracted a glittering array of literary critics, including Malcolm Cowley and Bernard De Voto, who attacked the artistry and politics of the novel with a ferocity that continues to this day. Margaret Mitchell was a partisan of the first rank and there never has been a defense of the plantation South so implacable in its cold righteousness or its resolute belief that the wrong side had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. In this novel, the moral weight of the narrative is solidly and iconoclastically in line with the gospel according to the Confederate States. It stands in furious counterpoint to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that Margaret Mitchell ridicules on several occasions by scoffing at Stowe’s famous scene of bloodhounds pursuing runaway slaves across ice floes."
Conroy continues , on her nostalgia,
“In the structure of Margaret Mitchell’s perfect society, slavery was an essential part of the unity and harmony of Southern life before Fort Sumter [where the Civil War started]. No black man or woman can read this book and be sorry that this particular wind has gone. The Ku Klux Klan plays the same romanticized role it had in Birth of a Nation and appears to be a benign combination of the Elks Club and a men’s equestrian society. Liberal critics took the novel apart from the beginning, then watched as it proceeded to become the best-selling book in American history. Its flaws may have doomed a lesser book, but this one rode out into literary history with Rhett and Scarlett in complete control of the carriage.”
A lament for the lost south, “a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance” in Pat Conroy’s words.
And yet. Clenched fists are raised against black bodies today, along with guns. With all the romanticizing of a dark time, how vital it is that black stories be told, so we have many more reminders of how America was built and how much is owed to those who built it while being tortured and killed.
In Part I, I have written to you, dear reader, of some of the books of fiction that tell the story of black America. In Part II, I will write of some works of non-fiction I have read that describe the impact and consequences of slavery reaching into the present day, and clear steps laid out by the authors on how we as a society can start righting these wrongs.
I leave you with a beautiful rendition of “Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”, a song of the Civil Rights movement, by Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble:
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around Turn me around, turn me around Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around I'm gonna keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin' Marchin' up to freedom land.