From the Bloodthirsty Savage to the Cringing Uncle Tom
Written by: Sarah Roth
Images of Black Men in Pre-Civil War America
Sarah Roth, the author of Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture, tackles the largely unexplored question of how gender relations played into the depiction of African American men and white women in nineteenth century culture.
Focusing on minstrel shows and other forms of working-class culture, historians of the antebellum United States have previously explored ways working-class white men in Northeastern cities participated in the construction of race and whiteness during the nineteenth century. But white women have been noticeably absent from such discussions, despite the important role they played in shaping popular views of white femininity and of African American manhood. A succession of white female authors—ranging from early children’s writers to much-loved novelists like Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe—succeeded in shifting common stereotypes of black men from menacing slave rebels to submissive martyrs by the time of the Civil War. They did so, in large part, to present white women as more admirable, assertive figures in American culture.
A succession of white female authors succeeded in shifting common stereotypes of black men to present white women as more admirable, assertive figures in American culture.
Creators of popular culture from the nineteenth century through today have frequently paired white female and black male characters in ways that elevate white womanhood while they devalue black masculinity. White male authors and film directors have most often emphasized a delicacy in white women’s nature as they show that nature threatened by black male savagery. The phenomenally popular films Birth of a Nation (1915) and King Kong (1933) represent early twentieth-century versions of this theme, though the same device had been a part of American literature since the 1830s.
Beginning in the 1850s, white female authors writing about race highlighted the docile nature of their black male characters to showcase the strength of white women. Black men in these texts came across as simple-minded, but also as stalwart protectors of the capable heroines they regarded with awe and admiration. Uncle Tom served this function for Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); in the twentieth century, Big Sam did the same for Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). The effect was a subordination of black masculinity to a glorified version of white womanhood.
From the early nineteenth century forward, black male authors persistently countered depictions of black men as either dangerous savages or deferent servants. Former slaves who wrote their own autobiographies in the 1840s—Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, Henry “Box” Brown (who mailed himself to freedom)—celebrated a sense of autonomous black manhood that also emphatically rejected animalistic brutality against whites, especially white women. Later, when many of Stowe’s hundreds of thousands of white readers embraced Uncle Tom as the quintessential black martyr, African American writers produced bold heroes who fought for their freedom and the safety of their families in a forthright, manly way. In the twentieth century, filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and popular novelist Frank Yerby answered Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, respectively, with portrayals of strong black men who directly refuted the notion of the black male brute.
Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture traces the tumultuous, multi-faceted debate within American popular culture over the nature of black manhood that stretched back to the colonial period and has lasted to our own time. It focuses on the formative period immediately prior to and during the Civil War. In an era when women were viewed as apolitical, white female authors created powerful cultural imagery that by the 1860s both encouraged white northern support for emancipation and frustrated African Americans’ hopes for racial equality.
Download an excerpt from Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture here.