"I want to be an honest man and a good writer." -James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
In June of 1949 James Baldwin penned an essay titled "Everybody's Protest Novel" for the Partisan Review: it was groundbreaking in its clear call for art that embraces "our humanity...our burden, our life", asking the artist - and society - to not "battle for it", but "to do what is infinitely more difficult - that is, accept it." Baldwin wrote this essay at a time in American life where society fully accepted segregation, where the media portrayals of African Americans were, at best, two-dimensional background characters who cooked, and cleaned, and labored with their hands, silently, a decade after Hattie McDaniel was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Indeed, the popular physical portrayals of African Americans had little altered from those birthed in the nineteenth century, exemplified in political satires like "The Miscegenation Ball", which portrayed African American women with "mammy" features dancing with anti-slavery Republican politicians at a "Negro Ball". In 1949, African Americans had fought in segregated units during World War II, only to return home to a legalized, systemic racism that sought to undermine their dignity and relegate them once more to second class citizens. This was an age of discrimination and fear, both in the South and in the North, and that fear was bolstered by popular, mass-media art.
The need to change the static status quo of the portrayal of African Americans was urgent for African American leaders. For Baldwin, an African American artist existing in this environment, still trying to stay true to his art, the need to be seen primarily as who he was, not as an African American leader, or even an African American writer, as such, was personally important. He writes: "I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else." In the same piece he also says, "I don't like people who like me because I'm a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt."
It is with this set of values, in this historical context, that Baldwin writes "Everybody's Protest Novel", and, in so doing, removes Uncle Tom's Cabin from many bookshelves, and its author along with it. On the anniversary of the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the most important books in American literature, it is time to re-evaluate Baldwin's critique, both on its artistic and historical merits, and see with the benefit of decades looking back where he was wrong.
Structurally, "Everybody's Protest Novel" places Uncle Tom's Cabin at the "cornerstone of American social protest fiction", proceeds to criticize contemporary art and movies, and singles out Native Son as "a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy", its main character, Bigger Thomas, being "Uncle Tom's descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems that the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle." One which, no doubt, Baldwin would love to disarm.
Unfortunately, instead of being fresh and contemporary, Baldwin's critiques of Uncle Tom's Cabin are steeped in the same Victorian, male literary tradition that dogged Stowe her entire literary career, and are just as empty and hollow in their extremity, years later, as they were during her lifetime. He points his pen down from on high and declares the work to be "a very bad novel", "self-righteous", "parading...excessive and spurious emotion", and goes so far as to equate this with the "inability to feel" (he references, as a side note, that Little Women suffers from this same, seemingly female-based, malady of the written word, leaving the reader to wonder exactly at what Little Women was protesting, and why). Claiming that Stowe "was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer", he conveniently ignores The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a nonfiction tome of hundreds of pages of court trial testimony, local newspaper notices, personal interviews, and thousands of extant documents that Stowe compiled as a means of defending her novel against claims that it had simply gotten slavery wrong. To Baldwin, such a defense seems unnecessary, stating briefly that slavery "was, in fact, perfectly horrible". Such a dependent clause, written in passing, dismisses the historical context Stowe, herself, was writing in, dismisses all of the "counter-novels" to Uncle Tom's Cabin, indeed, it dismisses academic scholarship as a tool for responsible essay making.
Surely, the subject, and Baldwin, and Stowe, all deserve better.
To get to art that is honest, to be, as Baldwin states, "a good writer", the artist requires more than mere verbal pyrotechnics and adrenaline. In the decades since "Everybody's Protest Novel" our contemporary popular media is filled with glances-over, and hyperbole, and argument for its own sake that has little to do with objective truth and everything to do with eyeballs in screens and likes on one's social media page. This is our challenge, right now, to pull ourselves away from that chasm of easy argument and get at the root of something deeper, something more honest in our humanity, to actually do what Baldwin suggests and not battle for it, but to fully and frankly accept it. Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, putting it back on the bookshelves of our national discourse, is a corrective, and needed, step in that direction.