Dissertation – Chapter 2 – Creating Citizenship…in…Uncle Tom’s Cabin (5 of 5)

Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/
Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/

© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
2009

When George, Eliza, and Harry escape, they look like the cast of a minstrel show.  George dresses as a white man.  I assume that he uses the same disguise and walnut bark as he does in the earlier escape episode.  Stowe is not explicit in the matter, but it stands to reason that what enjoyed earlier success would be repeated.  Eliza dresses as a white man and Harry dresses as a white girl.  George stands as a black man mimicking a white man using blackface to mimic a black man.    Harry plays the role of a cross-dressed wench.  And Eliza, without blackening agent, follows the customs of women on the minstrel stage.  According to Annemarie Bean, women, who did not black up, played white men on the minstrel stage.  In the African American minstrel tradition, the women necessarily needed to have white skin in order to play white men.  Furthermore, women wore “closely tailored men’s clothes,” so regardless of the outfit, the feminine physique remained fully visible (Bean 175, 176).  

George watches as Eliza accustoms herself to “her slender and pretty form” in the “articles of man’s attire” (Stowe 545).   Eliza playfully flirts with her audience of one as she begins to cut her long tresses.  When she completes the shearing, Eliza adds “a few fancy touches” and deems herself a “pretty young fellow” while spinning around and laughing and blushing at and for her husband (Stowe 545).  He soberly replies that she “always will be pretty” (Stowe 545).  Ignoring the compliment, Eliza sinks to one knee, lays her hand on his, and pouts at her husband’s demeanor.  Before this scene, Stowe never depicts Eliza as playful, girlish, or silly.  Throughout the novel, Eliza has been a devoted wife, mother, and servant.  Not until she dresses as a male, in minstrel fashion, does Eliza perform like a girl and flirt with her husband.  Were this on-stage, the audience would see a woman’s form in close-fitting male clothing flirting for the amorous attentions of another man.  Therein lies the humor – the audience knows it is a woman, but the masquerade of masculinity yields comic relief. 

Eliza’s petulance endears her to George, who draws her into an embrace.  He then tells the ostensible man whom he clasps “with a convulsive grasp,”  “‘You are a blessed woman’” (546, 545).  Eliza looks up at George in tears and with adoration.  Their love scene ends with George “looking admiringly” at Eliza and proclaiming, “‘you are a pretty little fellow.  That crop of little, short curls, is quite becoming. . . .  I never saw you look quite so pretty” (Stowe 546).  Her performance is rewarded.  Eliza, as a male, receives approval and accolades.  Although it is preposterous to believe that Eliza, whom Stowe describes as beautiful woman, is prettier as a male than she is as a woman, it is plausible to believe that as a male (although in a nearly transparent disguise), Eliza finds more freedoms and ultimately finds freedom from slavery.  The transparent disguise acknowledges the malleability of race and gender and thus citizenship.  Harry’s arrival interrupts this love scene and further complicates the idea of self-fashioning as citizenship.

Harry enters dressed in girl’s clothes.  Eliza, still dressed as a man, practically squeals, “‘What a pretty girl he makes. . . .  We call him Harriet’” (Stowe 546).  (Interestingly, Harry finds freedom as a young girl named Harriet while Harriet Beecher Stowe cannot gain the trappings of male freedom while she is yet a girl.)  Stowe does not indicate whether Harry found his own attire odd, but she writes that he “stood gravely regarding his mother in her new and strange attire” (Stowe 546).  Then, this strangely dressed Eliza beckons to Harry, “‘Does Harry know mamma?’” (Stowe 546).  Eliza’s mother’s heart yearns toward her son despite the male attire, but the male disguise turns a moment of maternal reunion into one of maternal separation.  Harry loses his mother, not to a slave trader, but rather to citizenship.  As a white man, Eliza becomes a citizen, something she could never do as a black slave mother.  Her transformation, however significant, is only temporary, and Harry eventually reclaims his mother.  If only Stowe could have lost her mother to something as fleeting as citizenship instead of to something as permanent as death.  Shaking off the inclination toward her son because she knows that it is “foolish” and may impede their escape, Eliza decides to employ tending, by melting into pervasive mid-century minstrelsy, and resumes her on-stage minstrel role (Stowe 546).

Eliza asks George how men wear cloaks.  He demonstrates, and she mimics his motions while trying to “‘stamp, and take longs steps,’” and looking “‘saucy’” (Stowe 547).  Entertained by the show, George urges Eliza not to exert herself but rather to “‘act that character’” as a “‘modest young man’” instead of as the brash one Eliza at first creates (Stowe 547).   Stowe’s Eliza does a wonderful job of simultaneously enacting a modest young man and a demure young woman.  She is a “young man,” but she is also George’s “shy companion” (Stowe 548).  She is at once the man who “gallantly” offers his arm to a lady boarding the ship that takes them to freedom and the woman who needs a male arm to protect her (Stowe 547).  George and Eliza stand arm in arm on deck, while George reassuringly pats Eliza’s hand.  When they reach freedom, the couple embraces and cries. As a reader, it is easy to forget that at this point in the novel George and Eliza still travel as two male companions because they act just like husband and wife.  Readers should not forget the disguise, however.  Without dressing as a man and adhering to the tenets of minstrelsy, Eliza and her family would not have reached freedom.  And if Eliza had not become a mother and had a family, she may not have yearned for the freedom that posing as a man brings her.  Becoming a mother inclines Eliza toward freedom, but this slave mother can only find freedom by becoming a white man.  Through the humanizing element of the minstrel disguise, Eliza becomes a free person.  But because Eliza never dons the paint of the blackface minstrel mask, she cannot fully approach citizenship like George does.  For George, the walnut bark symbolizes the ultimate privilege of white supremacy and patriarchy, in other words, American citizenship.

Conclusion

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s narrative comes during a time of national upheaval when women sought expanded rights while white male citizens curtailed the limited rights of women and legislated against any rights that slaves may have had through the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law.  Because Harriet Beecher Stowe lost her mother when she was young, she lives with her mother’s legend and longs for a mother’s love.  In Uncle Tom’s Cabin she recasts that loss.  Harry is Stowe, but Harry only faces the threat of losing his mother.  In her fiction, Stowe uses motherhood to embolden Eliza and keep her present in Harry’s life.  The only way for Eliza to become an ideal American mother is to be free.  Stowe uses the tools of passing and minstrelsy to free Eliza and free her to be the mother that Stowe never knew.

Working through her loss of her mother by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin frees Stowe to take on a feminist lifestyle.  Stowe’s life certainly falls outside of a traditional domestic role as it approaches feminism.  Stowe, whether or not consciously, blends models of feminism in her personal life that seep into her professional life and legacy. Her work accordingly displays the evils of slavery and furthers the abolitionist cause, while it also advances the cause of women’s rights.  To feminists, the word “‘emancipation’ meant access to the world outside the home and freedom from psychological and economic dependence on men” (Hersh 190).  Writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin emancipates Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Stowe’s work in Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only liberates her but also other authors.  Stowe becomes a mother in the American literary tradition by opening avenues for other authors to discuss black female slaves as people and women and to move those women out of the domestic and sentimental arenas and into the public and political realms typically dominated by men.  Her work serves as a diving board for other authors to further and expand the issues regarding women’s roles in patriarchal American society, to take up an abolitionist gauntlet, and to do so by recasting the performances of minstrelsy and racial passing as means to achieve citizenship.  Three authors affected and empowered by Stowe’s work are William Wells Brown, Hannah Crafts, and Mark Twain, whose works I examine in the following chapters.

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