Dr. Clint Smith suggests that the best way to read Harriet Beecher Stowe and Josiah Henson is together.
Dr. Clint Smith, who won the Stowe Prize for literary activism last year with How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, wrote in The Atlantic this month about “The Man Who Became Uncle Tom.” That man was Josiah Henson, whose memoir was often published as The Real Story of Uncle Tom. One edition included a forward by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Dr. Smith was astounded that he had never before heard of Josiah Henson. “Why didn’t I read [Henson’s narrative] in school?” he asked.
Dr. Smith also reported that he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time very recently. He found a book filled with stereotypes, yes. “But there are also parts of the book that . . . presented the moral complexity of slavery in ways that perhaps no other writer was doing . . . at the time.”
He found that Tom was not the embodiment of the racial slur Uncle Tom, but instead “was kind, thoughtful, and brave—a tragic hero who sacrifices his own life rather than give up information about where two enslaved Black women are hiding. This was not the Tom I thought I knew.” Dr. Smith adds: “Stowe was genuinely trying to do something really important.”
Dr. Smith concludes that read together Henson and Stowe illuminate many of the complexities of human beings negotiating systems of oppression and trying to be good people, trying to do the right thing. Noting where the books are different, where they are the same, why one was more popular than the other, he wrote, “could be really generative.”
Please stay tuned as the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center continues to work together with the Josiah Henson Museum and Park in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Josiah Henson African-Canadian Museum in Dresden, Ontario.
Karen Fisk is the Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. The Stowe Center’s mission is to encourage social justice and literary activism by exploring the legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe. We strive to encourage the activist in everyone.