Signifying (Re)visions: Anxieties of Masculinity in African American Male Artistic Responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin

Asekun, Ayoade, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Railton, Stephen, Department of English, University of Virginia
McDowell, Deborah, Department of English, University of Virginia
Rody, Caroline, Department of English, University of Virginia
Frick, John, Department of Drama, University of Virginia

From the moment of its publication in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a cultural phenomenon that generated much heated debate about slavery, race, and black masculinity. Indeed, the enduring power and importance of this novel and its central black male figure, Uncle Tom, is reflected in the fact that over 150 years later its influence is still felt in literary and cultural discourses on race and black masculinity. Stowe’s novel, as I argue, has been a particularly burdensome text for African American men who believe that Stowe's characterization of Uncle Tom as a stoic Christian and "nurturing" slave feminizes, and thus, emasculates him, and by extension them. I contend that this feminization and perceived masculine lack in Uncle Tom produces in African American men anxieties of masculinity that catalyze a need to respond to Stowe’s portrayal of black masculinity and heroism, and then proffer their own visions of black manhood. I term these black male artistic revisionary efforts “signifying revisions.” I further argue that these artists are not only at war with Stowe, but that her novel also provides these black male revisionists a vehicle through which to challenge one another’s definitions of black masculinity, and to address racial issues of their specific historical moment. My analysis therefore traces these revisions from nineteenth-century responses: Frederick Douglass's novella The Heroic Slave; Martin Delany's Blake; Charles Chesnutt's Reconstruction era novel Marrow of Tradition; James Baldwin's essay "Everybody's Protest Novel"; Richards Wright's Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son; Amiri Baraka's plays Slave Ship and Dutchman as pre and post-Civil Rights era responses; Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada; Robert Alexander's play I Ain't Yo Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom's Cabin; and finally Bill T. Jones dramatic dance performance Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Promised Land as 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s black male responses.

My project interrogates these signifying revisions in order to understand the African American male fixation on Stowe and her novel. More specifically, I unearth why black male writers find Uncle Tom and Stowe’s other black characters so vexing that they return again and again to the scene, if not the sense of her text. My project answers these questions by suggesting that these revisionary texts are ultimately about black male explorations of their own masculinity, sexuality, relationship to the black and white feminine, and to black and white men. Indeed, these black artists wrestle the pen from Stowe, insisting upon their rights to present black masculinity from their own black male experiences.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
African American
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