by Elizabeth Grace Matthew
in America Magazine

Almost 170 years ago, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to propel many progressive, elite white women toward abolitionist sympathies. 

When President Abraham Lincoln, as is alleged, greeted the novel’s author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as “the little lady that started this big war,” the description was mostly hyperbole. Nevertheless, it would be no exaggeration to say that Stowe’s novel, published in 1852, both epitomized and codified the 19th-century sentimentalist idea that progressive white women’s feelings should be the ultimate compass for American morality—on race and more generally.

In the “Concluding Remarks” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe urges her readers—mostly Northern white women whose ostensibly delicate sensibilities had been shielded by their men from real knowledge about the brutality of slavery—to “feel right” about abolition, and all would be well. Leave the politics—the thinking and the doing—to others. Just feel right

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe paints an enslaved woman, Eliza, as a Black Madonna figure trying desperately to save her innocent baby. She paints an enslaved man, Tom, as a Black Christ figure who is willing if not happy to be slaughtered for love of those who enslaved him. And, of course, it should go without saying that Northern white women “feeling right” by Stowe’s injunction—crying indignant tears at her portrayal of Tom’s death, for example—was indeed preferable to the grotesque alternative (cheering, say, at his demise). 

Yet it is essential to recognize that for Stowe’s readers, this low bar of “feeling right” still obscured and excused more than it revealed or demanded. After all, it was relatively easy for many Northern white women, even in 1852, to feel shock, sympathy and righteous anger about the fact that through the brutality of race-based slavery, those bad people down there in the American South could crucify a Black Christ figure…

Click here to read the entire article in America.

One thought on “Why ‘feeling right’ on race is not—and has never been—enough

  1. I just read ELIZABETH GRACE MATTHEW, HARRIET BEECHER STOWE AND ‘FEELING RIGHT’ ON RACE. I am a progressive, white, senior woman, a Life-Professed Lutheran Franciscan, who sees Jesus’ face in everyone. Because I have long past being tired of “feeling right” and Passionately long to overcome perceived patronization and live a life AMONG all “thinking right and doing right,” I would love to be pointed in the direction to do this honestly. I hope to engage my Spiritual Director, family, Sisters and Brothers in this conversation as I continue Formation. PLEASE, in future additions, can you share some “retreat” type spiritual direction that will direct and “help me find God” in my quest to love all unconditionally…the poor, the elderly, people of color, LGBTQIA, EVEN our current president, who I can only describe as lost, least, and lonely. I am about 2/3s through ROBIN DEANGELO’s book, WHITE FRAGILITY, and still waiting for her to point me, but now wonder if that direction will ever come. HELP!

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