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By Orisabiyi Oyin Williams
Many know of the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. What many people don’t know is that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was based on the life of Josiah Henson. However, the book we know is fictional and tells a vastly different story.
Who is Josiah Henson?
Josiah Henson was born enslaved on June 15, 1789 in Port Tobacco, Maryland. He was a minister, author and abolitionist. Henson’s autobiography was published in 1849. Josiah, like most enslaved people born on plantations, suffered mentally, physically and spiritually. In Henson’s autobiography, he talks about his father, who beat his master almost to death for abusing his mother. He was later sold and never saw his father again. In the autobiography, he talks about being made an overseer. He would steal sheep and pigs, take them a couple miles out into the woods to slaughter them, then give the meat to the other slaves who rarely were given the opportunity to eat meat. Henson would always put more cotton in the bags of slaves so they wouldn’t get whipped. One day, he tasked with transporting slaves to another plantation; if he was able to successfully do that, he would be able to buy his freedom with money he had saved from preaching at other plantations. The journey was successful, and when he returned, his master raised the price of his freedom to $1000. Devastated over this news, he decided to take his family and escape to Canada. The Henson family endured a lot on their journey and barely made it. Once Josiah made it to Canada, he started a laborer school for runaway slaves that helped them learn new skills and to get established. You can read The Autobiography of Josiah Henson here.
The accounts in “The Autobiography of Josiah Henson” life were nothing like the Uncle Tom that we have known. As a matter of fact, the name “Uncle Tom” has become a negative term meaning a black man who is subservient to white people and who has turned a blind eye on his own people for money or status.
Why did Harriet Beecher Stowe write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852. Stowe was inspired to write her novel based on Henson’s biography. His escape to Canada inspired many white abolitionists like herself. Stowe believed that her novel was going to depict the evil of slavery so people around the world could see it for what it was. Will Kaufman is quoted as saying that Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” laid the groundwork for the Civil War.
Its remarkable how different Josiah Henson’s life is different than Uncle Tom’s in the novel. However, Josiah and Uncle Tom actually have something in common with each other. The two of them actually used their positions to help their people. In “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” it wasn’t Uncle Tom who sold out and beat other slaves, it was the black overseers Quimbo and Sambo. They never shared any food they were given or showed any mercy on other slaves in the novel. It was Quimbo and Sambo who beat Uncle Tom to his death, and then Uncle Tom forgave them as they gave their lives to Christ.
So how did we get it wrong? How did we always make Uncle Tom out to be this negative term within the black community? I strongly urge that every African-American read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Autobiography of Josiah Henson.” If you have ever called a black person an Uncle Tom, you have definitely used the wrong terminology.