Passing strange

Among the advantages of being educated in an era that eschewed the classics in favor of lots of forgettable, but doggedly relevant, literature is that I haven't been force-fed lots of old books worth reading. So as a break from the present, I try to collate old must-reads into my never-fading book pile. These days I am helped by the fact that I'm too cheap to buy books for my new Kindle so I download the free stuff with great glee.

So I finally read Uncle Tom's Cabin this summer. Talk about low expectations. I was sure I'd get a few pages in and "delete." I was wrong.

Frankly, as clumsy and silly as it often can be, Cabin is amazingly provocative about human relations - and race. Not that anything about slavery shocked me - I went to "Black School" on Saturdays just like Jewish kids went to religious school and boy scouts to their meetings. But the observations on how slavery and differentiating people by race mangled everyone involved is actually quite fresh and, sadly, relevant. The scenes to watch for are not the long sermons or the stereotyped auction scenes - watch for the private interactions between people and some insights that even in 2010 people aren't willing to admit to.

I was particularly drawn to how little skin color had to do with it - being a white black person myself - and the hysterical descriptions of people passing for whites while escaping slavery while carrying a "dusky" secret or telltale tainted brow... Tragic mulattos, oy! But read George and Mr. Wilson in the tavern and tell me how often you've ever heard a black man and white man talk that way to one another - in reality or fiction.

Well worth the read, or re-read - and discussion. I'd love to get people to talk about race without the usual tiptoeing, preening, intimidation, and defensiveness. Living in both worlds I can tell you that the mutual lack of empathy is staggering and the selective mutism in the presence of "other" people is a shame. It may take massive intermarriage to really get rid of race, but I suggest the shortcut of actual engagement: awkwardly, stumblingly, risking offense and living with it as well. Maybe talking about Uncle Tom's Cabin is a good way to start - with 150 years of distance.

Book clubs: take the Uncle Tom's Cabin challenge. Read this book in a mixed race environment!


  1. so many interesting things here. It is sad we can't talk with open interest or curiosity about race. There is the fear of offending, the "guilt" etc. I remember very clearly having sleep-overs with Indian, black, Asian friends in grade-middle school and things got odd around 8th grade. We had "sensitivity training," and an Indian friend talked about how my ancestors colonized and stole from hers and I remember feeling awkward, weird, embarrassed and ultimately we were all somehow silenced. Time to talk about it again, and not take offense on either side if our intentions are open and honest.

  2. My stepmom is 'black,' and my mom and dad are 'white.' Right now, I am more a part of my 'black' family than my 'white' - for a lot of reasons, but mostly because my step/adopted grandma is AWESOME. But even in a mixed-race family, things are awkward. Maybe they would be less so if I'd grown up within the family, but things are as they are. I wish it were something people weren't afraid to talk about. My family is pretty open about talking about race-issues - the good and the bad of both sides - but still there are times when our separate 'heritage' causes... embarrassment? I laugh and say I am the 'white sheep' of the family, when I'm at my stepmom's, because my dad and I are usually the only white people around. Which, when race issues DO come up, can be painfully awkward. For me. I think my dad revels in it. :-P The same for when I introduce my friends to my 'mom' and my [step]sister and brother. Its... we need to start having conversations, but I have difficulty imagining people doing so, outside of mixed race families and marriages.

    Still - I haven't read Uncle Tom's Cabin - and now I think I might.

  3. I think facing the discomfort is the first step. It *IS* awkward, but that can't stop us. As long as there is a topic or a group of people that we avoid we give it power to control us. It is also bad for our kids to grow up sensing but not understanding these tensions.


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