Cultural Identity in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Oct 28, 2018 at History Essays

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From the first sight, memory may seem something personal, but a closer look shows that it is formed by collective experience. Nevertheless, cultural memory should be illustrated in certain literary or visual ways in order to be accessible to future generations. Thus, cultural memory can be defined as generations' heritage represented in literary texts, traditions, rites, celebrations, and other possible sources that convey information associated with what has happened. Cultural memory refers to the collective experience of the past that transfers throughout the centuries from one generation to another (Assmann & Czaplicka, 1995). Moreover, individuals communicate and interact with each other, and thus create their history. This everyday communication related to a group furthers the establishment of communicative memory where every person creates a socially mediate memory (Assmann, cited in Erll & Nunning, 2008). Hence, cultural memory helps people to construct their own identities addressing to the past knowledge, and thus individuals become able to comprehend themselves as a group – family, neighborhood or nation. All these groups build a unity based on their past. Additionally, each literary piece mirrors cultural memory of a certain group (Lachmann, 2004), and Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of the strongest historical images of group's identity. Therefore, Uncle Tom's Cabin is a remarkable literary example of cultural memory that possesses the knowledge of race as a specific cultural identity.

Literature does not simply records history, it preserves the knowledge of cultural memory. Lachmann stated, “Literature is culture’s memory that include the knowledge stored by a culture, and virtually all texts a culture has produced and by which a culture is constituted” (as cited in Erll & Nunning, 2008, p. 301). Thus, every literary piece reflects memory that the culture implies. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe depicted the enslavement of African Americans based on race. The domination of whites over blacks cannot be acceptable because all people are equal, and the use of one group of individuals for benefits of another one is inappropriate. The novel Uncle Tom's Cabin conveys an important message of race as a cultural identity that in 19th century had a vital importance to black people. The portrayal of African-Americans in racist terms such as “mammy”, “uncle”, and “pickaninny” addressing to the black slaves has reinforced racial stereotypes in American culture for many years to come (Stowe, 2005). In addition to this, being written in the times of severe control under slaves, Stowe's anti-slavery novel advocated the immediate liberation of the slaves. The writer attempted to persuade her contemporaries that deprivation of somebody's freedom is evil against society.

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Historically, African-American people were deprived of their native land and forcibly relocated in as slaves for white people in Southern America. As depicted in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the black slaves attempted to run away from Southern America and move to Northern America that was free from the slavery. For example, Eliza and George escaped to Canada in the search for freedom. Thus, racial identity of African-American people has been constructed through their location. This special peculiarity of African-Americans in 19th century becomes an essential part of the destabilization of racial identity in Stowe's literary piece. For instance, one of male characters George Harris refers to Mr. Wilson, “...what country have I, or any one like me, born of a slave mother, sir? I haven’t any country, any more than I have any legal father!” (Stowe, 2005, p. 15). George is a product of the African-American relocation who has lost a concept of self. The man has experienced displacement from his heritage while being forcibly removed from Africa during the slave-trade. Thereby, George is both homeless and fatherless – he does not have control over elements of his culture and generally over his own cultural representation. Living far away of the historical homeland and facing with cruelty, biases, and stereotypes of African-American race, the identity of the black people has been neglected because they were deprived of their own language and customs. Due to stereotypical ideology, black people are invisible and nameless because of their color of skin. Thereby, this displacement greatly affected construction of racial identity of African-Americans who being subtracted of their original culture underwent racist ideologies and stereotypes.

Moreover, black people in Uncle Tom's Cabin suffered from different displays of neglect and outrage due to their race. Although some characters of Stowe's novel sympathize the blacks, the cruelty and stereotypical thinking of white-supremacist ideology greatly influenced the construction of racial identity of black people. From the beginning of the story, it can be assumed that depiction of the cabin of a slave Uncle Tom, especially portrait of Washington and spiritual prints on the walls has been purposed to demonstrate similarity between the American slave and the American dweller. However, a striking difference of the both becomes evident when the reader recognizes that a portrait of Washington is “drawn and colored in a manner which would certainly have astonished that hero” (Stowe, 2005, p. 20). It should be noted that, historical value and significance of Washington's figure was not crucial to Tom's representation of liberty and desire for freedom. The strange depiction of Washington's appearance was of first priority to the character because “if Washington is to be Tom's hero, he must be black like Tom” (Riss, 1994, p. 514). In Tom's imagination, Washington – a powerful and intelligent leader of white people was black. It can be presumed that black guise of Washington symbolizes a great need of a strong commander who would set racial homogeneity. Thus, the color of skin had a vital significance in construction of racial identity of African-Americans. Nevertheless, Stowe does not emphasize the significance of racial differences, she rather underlines the importance of race in the establishing of both personal and group's cultural identities.

In Stowe's novel, African-Americans were identified rather as black slaves than individuals with their own cultural memory. The image of a black slave within plantations of the great house in the South is inextricably linked to stereotypes and prejudices connected with African-American people. According to Stowe (2005), black people is an “exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race” (p. 3). Thus, being oppressed, African-American had not opportunity to build their group's identity. Lining within hostile nation and continuously facing with race prejudices gradually dull awareness of personal racial identity. For example, the mullato George Harris pretends to be a white man, particularly “Spanish-looking gentleman” with a servant (Stowe, 2005, p. 41). The idea of white supremacy creates certain impact on people, their thoughts, behavior, and what is more important their identity. Being a black man, George abandons his racial identity in order to survive in the world of white domination. Though George experienced what is to be a black slave, he did not shrink to be accompanied by his personal servant. According to Riss (1994), “race crucially formed personal and national identity thoroughly pervaded antebellum culture” (p. 517). African-American identity was suppressed, and thus black people had no possibility to progress in their development. Heavy chains of slavery created a new history of black people far away from their ancient homeland.

At the same time, the notion of the family, particularly its integrity had an important role in the formation of African-American racial identity. Numerous offenses against the integrity of the family depicted in Uncle Tom's Cabin claim about unjust towards humanity. Family represents the inner world of the slave, as well as his or her feeling of dignity and self-respect. Furthermore, family is closely connected with racial identity of a person because it conveys a knowledge of cultural memory and history of the nation. However, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, family cannot be regarded as a stable unity – a member of family can be suddenly bought by another white man or beaten to death by owner in order to punish the slave, and thus to teach a lesson others. As Fitzhugh stated, slavery “leaves but little of the world without the family” (as cited in Riss, 1994, p. 527). The undermining of the institution of the family as one of the triggers of destruction of African-American racial identity and negative racist ideology perpetuated the black identity as something other, alien to the whites. Thus, the separation of families can be recognized as one of the central evils against racial identity of black people.

Additionally, cultural memory as a representation of generations' heritage possesses the information of nation's history, traditions, and beliefs. Being depicted in literature, cultural memory demonstrates the collective experience of the past. People become aware of their cultural identity referring to the knowledge of previous generations that help them to build a unity. Cultural memory requires to be portrayed in literary texts in order to convey information to the future progeny, and the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is a peculiar depiction of the establishment of racial identity of African-Americans who have experienced long years of slavery, cruel treatment, and neglect under the dominance of the whites. The enslavement of African-Americans based on race, the removal of black people from Africa during the slave-trade, suppression of cultural identity and rights, separation of families, and lack of a strong foundation to put the end to the racial inequality greatly influenced African-Americans' comprehension of their racial identity. Although Stowe's literary piece is directed against the whites' supremacy and for emancipation of black people, it represents a horrible page in history of America.

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