Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an abolitionist novel that counters the arguments against the emancipation of black slaves. Due to the colour of his skin, Uncle Tom is subjected to the ideologies of black masculinity. An ideology points to “the ways that people think, act, and understand themselves and their relationship to society” (Fiske, 311). Fiske’s article, “Interpellation,” explains the processes which are recognized in the social order. He argues that you do not get to be an individual until you are recognized in the social order. Consequently, Uncle Tom is identified as a black slave, rather than an individual man, because he is not recognized in the social order. At the beginning of the semester, Humphrey’s pointed out that Uncle Tom as a character “fights the ideologies of black masculinity as a frightening force of savage sexual violence; uncivilized behaviour; immoral behaviour that needed to be controlled and regulated” (Humphreys, 2011). Stowe had to drastically shift how black men were interpellated, which is the process “whereby language constructs social relations for both parties in an act of communication and thus locates them in the broader map of social relations in general (Fiske, 313). Therefore, Stowe’s novel is attempting to re-categorize Uncle Tom from a scary, male, black slave who could easily enact revenge on his owner to an individual who merely stands up for what he believes in.
The reason I am bringing this up is because I came across a cover page from a 1943 Classics Illustrated comic book featuring Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While I could not find the entire comic book, the cover alone speaks wonders. I mentioned in a previous post titled “Things and Literature” that paraphernalia produced around the novel often reinforces the negative messages and highlights the racism in the text. Well, in the same way, this illustration frames how the literature was interpreted. Uncle Tom is depicted as a superhero in the comic, which can be related to his heroism in the novel. However, once again, we can see that the illustrations accentuate the negative and racist dimensions of the text. First off, in a number of other images and videos regarding Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom is predominately illustrated as an older man. Yet, the comic illustrates a sexualized young, muscular man, who is literally bulging out of his clothing. The fact that his hands are forming fists enforces the idea that he is ready to fight. Also, the placement of his bare feet (one in front of the other) suggests that he is ready to ‘pounce’ at any moment.
When we first meet Uncle Tom in the novel, he is exceptionally loyal to his master and is treated well at the Shelby farm. He is a child-like slave who ‘knows his place,’ and follows orders (Humphreys). While this may be true on Mr. Shelby’s farm, where he felt no need to fight, once he was placed on Simon Legree’s evil plantation, the reader can see a shift in Uncle Tom’s character. For example, when Legree asserts that he would “have none o’ yer bawling, praying, singing niggers on [his] place” and proclaimed that he would replace Uncle Tom’s church, “something within the silent black man answered No!” (Stowe, 481). The narrator then states that “that voice is one [Legree] shall never hear,” which is quite the opposite (Stowe, 481). In fact, while working at Legree’s plantation, Uncle Tom felt that he had no choice but to disobey orders from his master. In other words, he obeys a higher law. For instance, not only does Uncle Tom reject Legree’s demands, he also encourages two of Legree’s female slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, to escape. On top of that, Uncle Tom refuses to help Legree and his men capture the two women. Uncle Tom was “willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breathe in [him],” but he refuses to act in a way that compromises his beliefs (Stowe, 508). I could not help but compare this image of Uncle Tom to the Incredible Hulk. Similar to Uncle Tom, the Hulk is a good character who continually tries to help others. He only hurts people who are trying to hurt him or other innocent individuals. However, it is important to note that in the novel Uncle Tom defeats Legree through the power of speech rather than physical violence, which the Hulk enforces. In spite of this, the depiction of Uncle Tom in the comic illustration indicates physical violence. Clearly, the comic is another example that demonstrates the durability of a certain representation of black male identity, as it works against Stowe’s attempt to reshape black masculinity from sexual savagery to innocence and loyalty.