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“I saw my mother put up at sheriff’s sale” (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

November 17, 2011

It’s not surprising to see these themes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but for comparison to Gertsen, Panaeva, Pisemskii et al., here is a passage showing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s treatment of 1) slave families being separated, 2) masters wanting to have sex with female slaves, and 3) passing as a non-slave in order to escape (which I think is rare in Russian literature).

This is part of George’s story to Mr. Wilson, his kindly former employer (but not master), whom he meets by chance as he (posing as white) and another slave (posing as his) are trying to make it to Canada:

“Why, am I not a man, as much as anybody? Well, Mr. Wilson, hear what I can tell you. I had a father—one of your Kentucky gentlemen—who didn’t think enough of me to keep me from being sold with his dogs and horses, to satisfy the estate, when he died. I saw my mother put up at sheriff’s sale, with her seven children. They were sold before her eyes, one by one, all to different masters; and I was the youngest. She came and kneeled down before old mas’r, and begged him to buy her with me, that she might have at least one child with her; and he kicked her away with his heavy boot. I saw him do it; and the last that I heard was her moans and screams, when I was tied to his horse’s neck, to be carried off to his place.”

“Well, then?”

“My master traded with one of the men, and bought my oldest sister. She was a pious, good girl—a member of the Baptist church—and as handsome as my poor mother had been. She was well brought up, and had good manners. At first, I was glad she was bought, for I had one friend near me. I was soon sorry for it. Sir, I have stood at the door and heard her whipped, when it seemed as if every blow cut into my naked heart, and I couldn’t do anything to help her; and she was whipped, sir, for wanting to live a decent Christian life, such as your laws give no slave girl a right to live; and at last I saw her chained with a trader’s gang, to be sent to market in Orleans—sent there for nothing else but that—and that’s the last I know of her. […]”

Note the contrast between George’s first master (and father) with his mother, and George’s second master with his sister. The sister’s story shows the possibility of resistance, and indeed reminds me of at least one saint’s life where a woman endures unbelievable pain to preserve her virginity. I don’t see any condemnation of the mother for not finding a way to resist, though – the point of the story seems to be that every choice the enslaved woman can make leads to misery.

The quote above is from chapter 11 (“in which property gets into an improper state of mind”). Already in chapter 12 (“select incident of lawful trade”) there is a different story of a slave auction where a mother wants to be sold with her son, but the two are separated.

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