Feeds:
Entradas
Comentarios

Posts Tagged ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe’

Deconstructing ‘Uncle Tom’ Abroad: The Case of an American President

Figure 1. ‘Onkel Barack’s Hütte’, Die Tageszeitung, June 5, 2008.

Figure 1. ‘Onkel Barack’s Hütte’, Die Tageszeitung, June 5, 2008.

In 2008, when Barack Obama was selected as the Democratic presidential candidate over Hilary Clinton, a German leftist newspaper headlined an article ‘Onkel Barack’s Hütte’ – ‘Uncle Barack’s Cabin’ – accompanied by a picture of the White House (see Figure 1).  This witticism was based on an historical allusion to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe – a nineteenth-century antislavery novel and popular culture phenomenon.  Following the story of Uncle Tom, an African American slave sold by his master to settle debts, the novel unapologetically brought the controversial issue of slavery to the forefront of the American psyche.  The character of Uncle Tom experiences the benevolent paternalism and cruel exploitation of chattel slavery, and eventually dies at the hands of a malicious master.  What does it mean for a twenty-first century presidential candidate, who became the 44th President of the United States, to be described in such terms?  The rhetorical implications of this epithet demonstrate how media and popular culture shape ideas about history, race, and politics, even beyond the United States.

A tension exists between the use of such epithets and the enthusiasm with which the first African American president was greeted in the United States and internationally.  And yet this belies the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its ongoing ability to shape discourses about American race relations.  ‘Uncle Tom’ has been understood as a pejorative term since the mid-twentieth century.  Die Tageszeitung’s article has been described as ‘satirical’, but the historical meaning of ‘Uncle Tom’ is so racially loaded that it cannot be so easily relegated to the realm of satire.[i]  Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Thomas, and Colin Powell have likewise been referred to as ‘Uncle Tom’, and so this has become ‘the standard epithet for any black man who serves whites and does not carry a gun.’[ii]  When Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan repeated the ‘Uncle Tom’ epithet to describe Obama in 2013, he chose not to attack a policy or political statement, but to denounce the president with an offensive racial slur.[iii]

It is therefore worth considering why the ‘Uncle Tom’ epithet has, in recent years, been mobilised internationally.  The answer can be found in Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself, a novel which exemplified the possibilities surrounding nineteenth-century mass culture.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin emerged at the height of the antislavery movement and had profound impact on American society.  It was first serialised in The National Era from June 1851, the subscriptions of which spiked from 17,000 to 28,000 over the course of its 40 week run.  When published as a novel in 1852, over 300,000 copies were initially sold; since then, over 200 editions of the novel have been printed.  When President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he is rumoured to have said, ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!’  This anecdote encapsulates the influence of Stowe’s narrative in nineteenth-century America.[iv]

Figure 2. Courier Litho. Co., c.1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Figure 1. ‘Onkel Barack’s Hütte’, Die Tageszeitung, June 5, 2008.

Subsequently the novel became one of the first examples of the mass circulation of popular culture.  Its various adaptations, including children’s pedagogical texts, songs, and sheet music, were soon distributed both nationally and internationally.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin instigated a new approach to merchandising souvenirs, from toy figurines to candles, based upon the story’s leading characters.[v]  These translations mythologised key scenes and characters from the original novel, bringing them to mass audiences in the United States, then England, and by 1853 in Europe and beyond.  Following the Civil War, blackface minstrelsy theatrical companies toured the United States and throughout the world, including Australia.[vi]

Figure 3. Courier Litho. Co., c.1899.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Figure 3. Courier Litho. Co., c.1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

From the outset, the circulation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin meant it became a lens through which race in America was understood internationally.  Stowe may have been the ‘head of the school’ of the ‘literature of social change’, but, much like her abolitionist contemporaries, she perpetuated ideas about black inferiority.[vii]  Yet unlike her contemporaries, Stowe gained a much wider platform upon which to disseminate negative racial stereotypes (see Figure 2).  Historians describe how Stowe relied on stereotypes to depict her African American characters: Uncle Tom was the faithful and martyred slave; Eliza and Cassie were ‘tragic mulattas’; Topsy, an enslaved child, represented the ‘coon’ stereotype (see Figure 3); Aunt Chloe and Dinah were the embodiment of the mammy archetype; and Sambo and Quimbo were depicted in terms of the ‘brutal black buck’, or the depraved and over-sexualised African male.[viii]  Ever since, references to ‘Uncle Tom’ have implied a gentle, forgiving, and passive individual; in short, not the makings of an American president.

The popularity of the novel continued long after the Civil War.  The novel’s already problematic representation of race proliferated in the nineteenth-century adaptations that relied on blackface minstrelsy, and the narrative sometimes underwent so much alteration that its original antislavery themes became obfuscated.[ix]  It later became one of the most frequently filmed stories of the silent film era.  Early adaptations cast white actors in burnt-cork blackface to portray the enslaved, but with the decline of blackface minstrelsy, later adaptations cast African American actors.  Its continued influence was accompanied by ever-changing narrative meanings, which did not always have a clear antislavery message.  More recent adaptations include the German language film Onkel Toms Hütte (1965) – which gives specific context for the 2008 Die Tageszeitung reference – and a lacklustre American television series of 1987.  Many such adaptations have been criticised for ‘Tomming’, wherein black characters remain subservient to white characters, thus appealing to the ‘repressions and fantasies’ associated with a vision of racial hierarchy and race relations that continues in contemporary America.[x]

For Jim O’Loughlin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a popular artefact through which changing concerns about race and nationhood can be understood, because it served as an ‘agent of cultural change for almost one hundred years.’[xi]  Since this novel and its adaptations became one of the early examples for the mass circulation of popular culture, this is almost as true internationally as it is in the United States.  But the process whereby Uncle Tom’s Cabin was brought to international audiences meant its racist stereotypes were not necessarily accompanied by the original novel’s redeeming feature – its antislavery message.  The international cultural memory of American history presented Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to rely on such stereotypes, which are damaging because of their clichéd contemporary familiarity.

A sense of disconnect therefore exists between the historical evaluation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the contemporary willingness to use ‘Uncle Tom’ as a politicised rhetorical device.  A historical lens enables readers to at once understand the novel as a flawed product of its time and an important agent of social change.  Stowe’s personal commitment to antislavery went hand in hand with the dissemination of racist stereotypes that were nonetheless common in nineteenth-century America, but the contemporary reiteration of such stereotypes in America and abroad is not an innocuous mistake.  History is intrinsic to making any meaning of the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’, so those who mobilise it understand its racist legacy.  This does not overlook the historical foundations of such epithets, but in fact shows a willingness to mobilise a history of chattel slavery and racial hierarchy for political gain.

As David S. Reynolds writes, ‘We may hope for a time when America is, in President Barack Obama’s phrase, “beyond race,” when we can erase the negative usage of Uncle Tom because it is inapplicable to social reality.’  Yet Obama himself perhaps most prominently continues to experience the legacy of nineteenth-century popular culture in a way that debunks the myth of a post-racial America.  The recent Sony hacks, where executives speculated over whether Obama would like films such as Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), the latter based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative of the same name, show how history and popular culture are very much linked to the expression of racism in America.[xii]  The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, the success of which was intrinsically linked to the expansion of mass culture across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrates the degree to which national prejudices can be naturalised, rather than critiqued, through international circulation.  When transported beyond the United States, the racism within American popular culture has subsequently been used to undermine a president beyond American borders.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains at the locus of the referential network upon which this political rhetoric continues to be built.


Footnotes

[i] Carolyn E. Price, ‘A German Take on Obama’s Win: Onkel Barack’s Hütte, or Uncle Barack’s Cabin,’ Digital Journal: Politics, (2008) http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/255969.

[ii] Hollie Robbins, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Matter of Influence,’ The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: AP US History Study Guide, 2014, http://ap.gilderlehrman.org/essays/uncle-tom%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%84%A2s-cabin-and-matter-influence.

[iii] Media Hawk, ‘Palestinian “Journalist” Calls Obama “Uncle Tom”,’ The Commentator, March 26, 2013, http://www.thecommentator.com/article/3047/palestinian_journalist_calls_obama_uncle_tom.

[iv] Claire Parfait, The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852-2002 (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007), 17-21 and 211-40; Daniel R. Vollaro, ‘Lincoln, Stowe, and the ‘Little Woman/Great War’ Story: The Making, and Breaking, of a Great American Anecdote,’ Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (2009): 18-34.

[v] Thomas F. Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 164-5.

[vi] Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual representations of slavery in England and America 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 146; Sarah Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 2005), Chapter Two: ‘Minstrel Variations: Uncle Toms in the Minstrel Show’; Melissa Bellanta, ‘Uncle Tom in the White Pacific: African-American Performances of the ‘Slave Sublime’ in Late-Colonial Australasia,’ Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 15, no. 3 (2014).

[vii] Carolyn L. Karcher, ‘Stowe and the literature of social change,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Cindy Weinstein, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 203.

[viii] Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films(New York: The Viking Press, 1973), 3-18; George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), Chapter Four: ‘Uncle Tom and the Anglo-Saxons: Romantic Racialism in the North.’

[ix] Edward Mapp, Blacks in American Films: Today and Yesterday (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1972), 17; Peter Noble, The Negro in Films (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1970), 31.

[x] Stephen Railton, ‘Readapting Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction on Screen, ed. R. Barton Palmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 73-74.

[xi] Jim O’Loughlin, ‘Articulating “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”,’ New Literary History 31, no. 3 (2000): 574.

[xii] David S. Reynolds, Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 273; Esther Lee, ‘Sony Hack: Scott Rudin, Amy Pascal Made Racist President Obama Jokes in Leaked Emails, Apologize for Insensitive Remarks,’ US Weekly, December 11, 2014, http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/sony-hack-scott-rudin-amy-pascal-joked-about-president-obamas-race-20141112.

Ana Stevenson

s200_ana.stevenson Stevenson is a PhD Candidate (History) at The University of Queensland, Australia.Her honours thesis looked at the historical significance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Gone with the Wind (1936), and her research interests revolve around women’s history, the rhetoric of American social movements, and transnational feminism(s).Ana is on the Lilith Editorial Collective, which produces the Australian Women’s History Network’s Lilith: A Feminist History Journal.Currently, Ana is a Visiting Scholar in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Read Full Post »

The frontispiece from the Memoirs of Henry Obookiah, published 1818. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic
John Demos

Great failure is often more enduring than we realize. Before the downward spiral, the effort seems to cast the future in its image. It captures a moment and then goes uncommemorated. Yet it does not go away. It is as if the hopes it once contained continue to smolder.

The Paris Commune, the revolutionary socialist government that ruled the French capital in the spring of 1871, was such a failure: virtually erased from the public memory of modern Paris, but an inspiration to generations of socialists before the Russian Revolution and a corresponding source of fear for their opponents. Another such failure was the Foreign Mission School of Cornwall, Connecticut, the subject of John Demos’s new book, The Heathen School, freshly longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award.

The comparison, I concede, seems grandiose. The Commune left thousands, possibly tens of thousands, dead and large swaths of Paris in ruins. The Foreign Mission School destroyed only itself, leaving disillusioned graduates and an embittered and divided local community that threatened, but never executed, violence. It did its damage at a distance.

What unites the Commune with the Foreign Mission School is the bright and defining hope each originally contained and the disappointment each eventually produced. The Commune was a moment when France seemed to augur a new day; the school embodied equivalent optimism for the United States. Cornwall was a visible world of farms, forests, and villages but also an invisible world where God and Satan contested. God’s victory would be America’s gift to posterity.

The Heathen School, as it was called in everyday speech, became an American exercise in revolutionary uplift designed to transform the vast non-Christian world into something that looked like Connecticut. Instead of sending missionaries to the heathen, the school brought the heathen to the missionaries. The school would transform young men into Christians able to become missionaries or to assist them. It was part of an American project to spread republicanism and Protestant Christianity—for Americans regarded the two as inextricably linked—across the globe.

indexDemos possesses an uncanny ability to see the reflection of a much larger world in the towns of colonial New England and the early republic. In The Heathen School, what Demos discerns is American exceptionalism: the proposition that the United States is a chosen nation whose history diverges from all others and whose destiny will determine the fate of the world. It is an idea still embraced by most American politicians (even when they are smart enough not to believe it) and loathed by most American historians.

Extravagant ideas can alight on modest places. Cornwall is a small town in what was, during the early nineteenth century, the heartland of a New England evangelicalism determined to change the world. Some of the locals were articulate proponents of American exceptionalism and made it the rationale for the school. The United States was, according to Yale College President Timothy Dwight, the place where “Empire’s brightest throne shall rise.” Lyman Beecher of Connecticut—the father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who followed the reforming zeal of evangelicalism into abolition—already knew the answer when he asked, “From what nation shall the renovating power go forth?” There was less a fine line between American benevolence and American imperialism than no line at all.

It later became a cliché that Protestant missionaries to Hawaii, including those associated with the Heathen School, “came to do good and did well,” but the original enthusiasm for uplift was genuine. These were people who thought the millennium might be at hand. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission, sponsors of the Foreign Mission School, reversed the connections between expanding American trade and spreading the Gospel. “Natives of almost every heathen country” were being drawn from their homes by American commerce, the Board said. If not converted, they would bring the worst of American society back to their lands, corrupting their countrymen and prejudicing them against Christianity. The Foreign Mission School would take non-Christians drawn to the United States by commerce, or those who already lived within its boundaries, educate them, convert them, and send them home to transform their homelands.

The school was thus ancestral to a variety of American projects designed to make foreigners into instruments of conversion, people who would turn their countrymen into people like us. Our current rationale in training military officers and economists is not so different than that for training missionaries. As the sponsors of the Heathen School knew, the results could be disappointing. Frequently, they still are, unless you consider the likes of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Mohamed Morsi, both partially educated on American shores, successful at creating New England in Egypt.

• • •

We tend not to look closely at the societies we expect to transform. We collapse them into largely undifferentiated lumps. This is true now as it was then. The very term Heathen School conveyed the American sense of a vast, indistinguishable mass of non-Christians. The students who came to the school were, however, disparate. Hawaiians dominated the first class, but it also included an Abenaki Indian, a Bengali, and a man named John Johnson, whose father was the child of an “English gentleman” and a “Hindoo woman” and whose mother was “a Jewess of the race of black Jews.” Later Tahitians came, as did at least one more Jew, a student from Timor, a Malay held as a slave in China, a Chinese, and two Greek boys from Malta. The students came from the four corners of the earth, but they were heathens one and all.

Demos breaks the undifferentiated mass into particular people. He concentrates on a small set of individuals—Henry Obookiah, who was Hawaiian, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, both of whom were Cherokees from Georgia, and Sarah Bird Northrup and Harriet Gold, who were from Cornwall. The desire for salvation ran together with more earthly ones. The result is a book as much about psychology as theology and as much about intimacy as commerce.

In Demos’s books people who think they control events find themselves shaken by those supposedly under their influence. But the Hawaiian Henry Obookiah, who both in a sense created the Heathen School and was its chief product, was not the challenge that brought the imperial dream down.

Events far from New England uprooted Obookiah and deposited him in Connecticut. The internal wars that yielded the kingdom of Hawaii orphaned Obookiah, and the China and Pacific trade, of which the Hawaiian Islands were an integral part, set him in motion. He became a Kanaka, an expatriate Hawaiian sailor, who made his way to New England and arrived at Yale in search of an education. In Demos’s interpretation he was in search of family; he thought he found it in Connecticut.

Obookiah underwent a classic Protestant conversion experience and came “home to New Jerusalem,” entering the church on April 9, 1815. It was Obookiah who formulated a plan to return to Hawaii “to preach the Gospel to my Countrymen” in their own language. He became the most celebrated of the group of Hawaiians who formed the nucleus of the Foreign Mission School’s first class. It was, the American Board believed, the hand of providence that brought Obookiah to Connecticut. The founders felt “confident that this thing is from God . . . [and] will, among others, be a means of evangelizing the world.” Obookiah did seem to be the real thing. He invented orthography for writing Hawaiian, learned Hebrew, and grew famous, which proved useful for raising money and advancing the cause.

Obookiah died of typhus in 1818, one of those fortunate deaths that frees a person from responsibility for failures to come. As was the custom, his deathbed scene was fully described and his words recorded. Lyman Beecher preached his eulogy. His ghostwritten Memoirs would go through “about a dozen editions,” according to Demos. His goals, though, were largely unfulfilled. In Hawaii the missionaries, accompanied by several of the graduates of the Foreign Mission School, made converts, but the students were by and large a disappointment. In time the Americans took over the islands, enriched themselves, and largely dispossessed the inhabitants, who dwindled in numbers.

When Obookiah died the Hawaiian missionaries had not yet departed, nor had John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and the other Cherokee students arrived at the Heathen School. After 1818 American Indians would dominate the student body. There was tension between the Indians and the Pacific Islanders; there were issues with truancy, discipline, and uneven academic achievement. But most troubling were relationships between the Cornwall girls and the scholars, or, as officials put it, “the colored boys.”

The desire to save the Indians, and a long history of sexual relations between Indian women and white men, did not prepare Cornwall for consensual sexual relations—in or out of marriage—between its white women and the school’s Indian men. To many readers, this will not come as a surprise, but the history of interracial sex is far more complicated than most Americans believe, and even more complicated than Demos makes it here. In the nation’s first days, it was fairly common and, if not fully accepted in all configurations, not routinely condemned or punished. But as the nineteenth century went on, prejudices against what became known as miscegenation intensified and hardened. The end of slavery—and with it the guaranteed subordination of black men and the coerced availability of black women—alongside worries about inheritance and property transmission and changing ideas about race all made interracial sex less tolerated than it had been earlier in American history. In Cornwall signs of this resistance appeared early.

John Ridge was from a leading Cherokee family and had already been to mission schools within the Cherokee Nation before he came to Cornwall in 1818. His romance with Sarah Northrup would have been utterly conventional had he not been Cherokee and she not been white. He was sick and entered the Northrup home. Sarah and her mother nursed him. He fell in love with Sarah and she with him.

The family sought to disrupt the romance by sending Sarah to her grandparents. The American Board decided it was time for John to return home, but neither distance nor time stilled their passion for each other—a passion that disturbed the social order. John Ridge published a denunciation of racial prejudice that allowed the “most stupid and illiterate white man” to disdain the most polished Indian. With Sarah’s devotion to John remaining strong, and her parents fearful that she would waste away longing for him and become vulnerable to consumption, Sarah’s family agreed to the marriage. It took place in January 1824, after John returned to Cornwall. Although some defended the marriage, much of Cornwall was outraged, and threats of violence accompanied the denunciations. John and Sarah moved to New Echota in the Cherokee Nation.

The marriage of John Ridge’s cousin Elias Boudinot to Harriet Gold bred even greater resentment and brought public demonstrations of disapproval. Harriet’s brothers and sisters and their spouses bitterly opposed the marriage. One of her brothers-in-law, the Reverend Cornelius Everest, wrote, “We weep; we sigh; our feelings are indescribable. Ah, it all is to be summed up in this—our sister loves an Indian! Shame on such love.” A minister from a neighboring town married Elias and Harriet in March of 1826 because the local minister refused to do so. They, too, would depart for the Cherokee Nation.

The school defended racial equality in the abstract, but not the actual fact of the marriages. Its evangelical supporters would not accept intermarriage, and the Ridge-Northrup wedding appears to have precipitated a decline in contributions. The founders had lost faith in their scholars, the last of whom would leave in 1828. Most of the graduates were disappointments to their teachers.

• • •

With the Boudinot-Gold marriage, Demos’s attention shifts to Cherokee country, and he signals the shift with what he calls an interlude. Demos narrates his own journeys paralleling those of his characters. He traveled to Hawaii to find Obookiah’s birthplace. And nearly two centuries after the Ridges and Boudinots settled in New Echota, Demos went for a visit.

We cannot time travel. A stop in Cornwall, or New Echota, or Obookiah’s birthplace leaves the visitor firmly in the present. But the past often lingers; its evidence endures. There are original buildings in Cornwall, fewer in New Echota. And at these sites stories and storytellers meet. Right here, in this house, this happened; here, these people once lived.

The historian’s next step is at once problematic and wondrous. Demos takes it. “In my mind’s eye I can glimpse the scholars passing in and out,” he writes of his visit to Cornwall. Being there “lessened the distance between my own world and that of the school.” Similarly in Georgia he muses that, for Harriet Gold, New Echota was a blank space to be filled in by experience. “So too, in my own case: an equally blank space. Until I have a chance to go there.” He travels to encounter traces of the past that remain visible.

That past was a Cherokee past, and what happened to the Cherokees in the 1820s and 1830s was a disgrace to the United States, but it was not a simple story, and Demos does not try to suggest otherwise. The Cherokee story shadowed, he writes, “on a vastly grander scale, that of the Foreign Mission School—high hopes, valiant efforts, leading to eventual tragic defeat.”

The same sense of mission and providential destiny that created the mission school ultimately did in the Cherokees. This is not to say the American Board destroyed them; many of their missionaries remained ardent supporters of the Cherokees’ attempt to retain their homeland. But the very sense of Christian superiority and providential favor for the United States embedded in the school also inspired those who sought to dispossess the Cherokees. Indians recognized this, and tried to counter it. They sought to separate American providential thinking into its secular and religious strains and pit them against each other. Indians hoped Christians would not evict Christians. They would, and they did.

Both Ridge and Boudinot had reason to doubt the value of the American Board as an ally, and neither thought that the United States would honor existing treaties. Seeing resistance as hopeless, they joined the Treaty Party, which ceded the Cherokees’ homeland to the United States. The Treaty Party had no authority, and the vast majority of Cherokees who followed Head Chief John Ross opposed them and their treaty, which was ratified, if only barely, by the Senate. In what Demos rightly describes as ethnic cleansing, the Cherokees and their neighbors lost their land, and many lost their lives in government roundups and a forced march west. For enabling this dispossession and dislocation, Ridge and Boudinot would pay with their lives when the surviving Cherokees reached Indian Territory.

The removal of the Cherokees would seem to make the tale of the Heathen School a familiar American story in which race takes the center stage. Racial prejudice sought to thwart the marriages of the Ridges and Boudinots and ultimately did in the school itself. Racial prejudice launched the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. But if race in the United States is a familiar topic, it is also a complicated one, and Demos shows its complications. His great strength as a historian is his ability to move effortlessly from the personal to the national, and when he does so here, a story about heathens and “colored boys” expands to include black slaves.

Many members of the Cherokee elite were slaveholders, and when Sarah Ridge, née Northrup, moved to Georgia, she mutated from a Yankee to a plantation mistress. She was in the eyes of both Cherokees and black slaves a “white lady,” the very status that brought so much trouble in Cornwall. With her husband’s assassination, Sarah was described as having “a dead heart in a living bosom.” Her Cherokee relatives sought to strip her and her children of their inheritance since she was “a white lady and had no clan.” She lived by hiring out her slaves. Her sons grew up quarrelsome and violent. They, along with a sizeable number of anti-Ross Cherokees, stood with the Confederacy, as did, although Demos does not mention it, Boudinot’s son, Elias Cornelius.

Lyman Beecher’s descendants became abolitionists, but the descendants of the leading Cherokee graduates of the Heathen School joined the Confederacy in defense of human slavery. Two of them, John Rollins Ridge and Elias Cornelius Boudinot, eventually fled the Cherokee Nation under threat of death and ended up alienated from both their New England and Cherokee roots. The failures of the Heathen School had only ramified.

Demos draws a parallel between Cornwall’s opposition to interracial marriage in the nineteenth century and the illegality of same-sex marriage in the twenty-first. His intent, I think, is something more than to compare inequities, particularly since, with same-sex marriage now legal in Connecticut, the analogy might produce comforting feelings of growing tolerance. Demos is too good a historian to think the past will be much of a comfort to us. He has crafted the book otherwise. His heroes, Sara and John Ridge, do not become villains, but they are more than simply victims of racism. Similarly the Cherokees and Hawaiians were betrayed and despoiled, but they were not innocents.

Demos’s analogies have a deeper target: the American sense of being a beacon to the world, its last best hope. This only leads us astray. We want to shape the world without the world touching us and revealing our own limits and prejudices, but more than that we insist on foreigners being unrealized versions of ourselves. We educate the Sisis and Morsis thinking they will become agents of our desires and in so doing forget that they, like the students at the Heathen School, were never ours to shape.

Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is author, most recently, of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

Read Full Post »