| Questions to Consider
Black Potential and the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
You might want to begin by providing students with background on Uncle Tom's Cabin, such as the circumstances under which it was published and a general outline of the plot. Otherwise, the questions are fairly straightforward; the answers depend, for the most part, on a close reading of the excerpt.
The questions addressing the significance of the excerpt and Stowe's evidence may be more problematic. Obviously, criticism of Uncle Tom's Cabin and charges that she had been misleading and untruthful stung Stowe and spurred her to respond. She took them seriously enough to write a book that contained documents and arguments. But, as this excerpt suggests, she may not have been entirely successful. Stowe used as evidence recitations of personal experience and insight as well as appeals to readers' own experience and right-mindedness. Although presentation of such "evidence" may have been effective back in the nineteenth century, it would not be the case today. Despite this lapse, Stowe presented other more convincing, documentary evidence and arguments in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Many criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe for not getting her facts right. Her critics demanded that she provide "hard" evidence to support the description of slavery portrayed in her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. She attempted to answer her critics point by point by writing "A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work."
Questions to Consider
- Summarize Stowe's view of education and slavery.
- According to Stowe, why were slaves indifferent to education after a certain age?
- Why was it significant that Stowe needed to respond to her critics?
- Taking on the role of historian, assess the quality of the evidence that Stowe furnished for her position.
In conducting the education of negro, mulatto, and quadroon children, the writer has often observed this fact:— for a certain time, and up to a certain age, they kept equal pace with, and were often superior to, the white children with whom they were associated; but that there came a time when they became indifferent to learning, and made no further progress. This was invariably at the age when they were old enough to reflect upon life, and to perceive that society had no place to offer them for which anything more would be requisite than the rudest and most elementary knowledge. . . .
Does not every one know that, without the stimulus which teachers and parents thus continually present, multitudes of children would never gain a tolerable education? And is it not the absence of all such stimulus which has prevented the negro child from an equal advance?
It is often objected to the negro race that they are frivolous and vain, passionately fond of show, and are interested only in trifles. And who is to blame for all this? Take away all high aims, all noble ambition, from any class, and what is left for them to be interested in but trifles?
The present Attorney-general of Liberia, Mr. Lewis, is a man who commands the highest respect for talent and ability in his position; yet, while he was in America, it is said that, like many other young coloured men, he was distinguished only for foppery and frivolity. What made the change in Lewis after he went to Liberia? Who does not see the answer? Does any one wish to know what is inscribed on the seal which keeps the great stone over the sepulchre of African mind? It is this,— was so truly said by poor Topsy,—"NOTHING BUT A NIGGER."
It is this, burnt into the soul by the branding-iron of cruel and unchristian scorn, that is a sorer and deeper wound than all the physical evils of slavery together.
There never was a slave who did not feel it. Deep, deep down in the dark, still waters of his soul is the conviction, heavier, bitterer than all others, that he is not regarded as a man.