180 Racism’s Prevalence in Early American Literature

Rose Paulin

The depiction of slaves within a text has everything to do with the author’s intent behind the piece. Benito Cereno is a text aimed at gaining a foothold in moral ambiguity, interested in a portrayal of the horrors of the slave trade and its possible outcomes – its characters are the darkest-skinned slaves of the three texts (describing them at one point as “ebon” (Melville, 38), a deep black color), and Melville characterizes Babo as scornful, strange, and savage, while underlyingly devious and intelligent. The Heroic Slave, on the other hand, depicts Washington with a mid-skin tone (described as “polished iron” (Douglass, 7), a warm, deep brown with black undertones), and leaves a relatively morally ambiguous display of his personality. While outwardly announcing Madison’s heroism, Douglass also offers glimpses into a complex man, one who is not just in possession of “the head to conceive, and the hand to execute”, but is a man “to be sought of as a friend, [and] dreaded as an enemy” (Douglass, 7) – unafraid to fight back, regardless of the cost, for freedom. And, finally, we come to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where the main characters are described as “quadroon” (Stowe, 5), often labeled as white-passing (Stowe, 35-36). Eliza is victimized and shown the most clear favor from among the three texts, as does her son, seen in descriptors used throughout the text that aim to gain sympathy from a reader. While this could be because Eliza is a woman (as the text was written in 1852, when women’s suffrage was mainly about acquiring voting rights and not being seen as equal human beings), I’d argue that the characterizations follow a trend between the texts: characterization from evil to good appears to be in equal proportion to the skin color of the character they are portraying.

 

It seems disgustingly obvious when compared back-to-back-to-back, but it’s something that took me a full reading and plenty of comprehension time to decipher. Racism is so prevalent in the author’s consciousnesses that they used skin tone to indicate the assumed favorability of the character from their audience. Trying to get a white audience to sympathize with your main character? Write them in as “so white as not to be known of colored lineage” (Stowe, 35). Want your character to be ambiguous and agreeable to all to encourage abolitionism, or at least empathy? Write them in as an in-between, bridging the gap from skin tone to skin tone. Want to demonize Africans or what the slave trade can do to them? (Then your name is Herman Melville and you’re not welcome here until I decide how to feel about you… and the readers get the idea by now, I’m sure.)

 

This unfortunate “scale” is one that is limited to the main characters based on the end goal of a piece of writing, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin clearly hit the mark it was aiming for. Its popularity and lasting place in the American literary canon shows that this hypothetical scale is successful among the text’s primarily racist, white audiences of the time of publication. Stowe implemented a white-passing character to gain white-heavy readership empathies, and it created a lasting ripple effect that drew her into the literary canon and into folklore as “The Novel That Started the Civil War”, proof that this technique is as effective as it was, and is, destructive to race relations in the United States.

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