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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER XII. TOPSY.
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Topsy stands as the representative of a large class of the children who are growing up under the institution of slavery,—quick, active, subtle and ingenious, apparently utterly devoid of principle and conscience, keenly penetrating, by an instinct which exists in the childish mind, the degradation of their condition, and the utter hopelessness of rising above it; feeling the black skin on them, like the mark of Cain, to be a sign of reprobation and infamy, and urged on by a kind of secret desperation to make their “calling and election” in sin “sure.”

Christian people have often been perfectly astonished and discouraged, as Miss Ophelia was, in the attempt to bring up such children decently and Christianly, under a state of things which takes away every stimulant which God meant should operate healthfully on the human mind.

We are not now speaking of the Southern States merely, but of the New England States; for, startling as it may appear, slavery is not yet wholly abolished in the free states of the North. The most unchristian part of it, that which gives to it all the bitterness and all the sting, is yet, in a great measure, unrepealed; it is the practical denial to the negro of the rights of human brotherhood. In consequence of this, Topsy is a character which may be found at the North as well as at the South.

In conducting the education of negro, mulatto and quadroon children, the writer has often observed this fact:—that, for a certain time, and up to a certain age, they kept equal pace with, and were often superior to, the white children with whom they were associated; but that there came a time when they became indifferent to learning, and made no further progress. This was invariably at the age when they were old enough to reflect upon life, and to perceive that society had no place to offer them for which anything more would be requisite than the rudest and most elementary knowledge.

Let us consider how it is with our own children; how few of them would ever acquire an education from the mere love of learning.

In the process necessary to acquire a handsome style of hand-writing, to master the intricacies of any language, or to conquer the difficulties of mathematical study, how often does the perseverance of the child flag, and need to be stimulated by his parents and teachers by such considerations as these: “It will be necessary for you, in such or such a position in life, to possess this or that acquirement or accomplishment. How could you ever become a merchant, without understanding accounts? How could you enter the learned professions, without understanding languages? If you are ignorant and uninformed, you cannot take rank as a gentleman in society.”

51Does not every one know that, without the stimulus which teachers and parents thus continually present, multitudes of children would never gain a tolerable education? And is it not the absence of all such stimulus which has prevented the negro child from an equal advance?

It is often objected to the negro race that they are frivolous and vain, passionately fond of show, and are interested only in trifles. And who is to blame for all this? Take away all high aims, all noble ambition, from any class, and what is left for them to be interested in but trifles?

The present attorney-general of Liberia, Mr. Lewis, is a man who commands the highest respect, for talent and ability in his position; yet, while he was in America, it is said that, like many other young colored men, he was distinguished only for foppery and frivolity. What made the change in Lewis after he went to Liberia? Who does not see the answer? Does any one wish to know what is inscribed on the seal which keeps the great stone over the sepulchre of African mind? It is this;—which was so truly said by poor Topsy,—“Nothing but a nigger!”

It is this, burnt into the soul by the branding-iron of cruel and unchristian scorn, that is a sorer and deeper wound than all the physical evils of slavery together.

There never was a slave who did not feel it. Deep, deep down in the dark, still waters of his soul is the conviction, heavier, bitterer than all others, that he is not regarded as a man. On this point may be introduced the testimony of one who has known the wormwood and the gall of slavery by bitter experience. The following letter has been received from Dr. Pennington, in relation to some inquiries of the author:
{ 50 Laurens-street,
{ New York, Nov. 30, 1852.
Mrs H. B. Stowe.

Esteemed Madam: I have duly received your kind letter in answer to mine of the 15th instant, in which you state that you “have an intense curiosity to know how far you have rightly divined the heart of the slave.” You give me your idea in these words: “There lies buried down in the heart of the most seemingly careless and stupid slave a bleeding spot, that bleeds and aches, though he could scarcely tell why; and that this sore spot is the degradation of his position.”

After escaping from the plantation of Dr. Tilghman, in Washington County, Md., where I was held as a slave, and worked as a blacksmith, I came to the State of Pennsylvania, and, after experiencing there some of the vicissitudes referred to in my little published narrative, I came into New York State, bringing in my mind a certain indescribable feeling of wretchedness. They used to say of me at Dr. Tilghman’s, “That blacksmith Jemmy is a ‘cute fellow; still water runs deep.” But I confess that “blacksmith Jemmy” was not ‘cute enough to understand the cause of his own wretchedness. The current of the still water may have run deep, but it did not reach down to that awful bed of lava.

At times I thought it occasioned by the lurking fear of betrayal. There was no Vigilance Committee at the time,—there were but anti-slavery men. I came North with my counsels in my own cautious breast. I married a wife, and did not tell her I was a fugitive. None of my friends knew it. I knew not the means of safety, and hence I was constantly in fear of meeting with some one who would betray me.

It was fully two years before I could hold up my head; but still that feeling was in my mind. In 1846, after opening my bosom as a fugitive to John Hooker, Esq., I felt this much relief,—“Thank God there is one brother-man in hard old Connecticut that knows my troubles.”

Soon after this, when I sailed to the island of Jamaica, and on landing there saw colored men in all the stations of civil, social, commercial life, where I had seen white men in this country, that feeling of wretchedness experienced a sensible relief, as if some feverish sore had been just reached by just the right kind of balm. There was before my eye evidence that a colored man is more than “a nigger.” I went into the House of Assembly at Spanishtown, where fifteen out of forty-five members were colored men. I went into the courts, where I saw in the jury-box colored and white men together, colored and white lawyers at the bar. I went into the Common Council of Kingston; there I found men of different colors. So in all the counting-rooms, &c. &c.

But still there was this drawback. Somebody says, “This is nothing but a nigger island.” Now, then, my old trouble came back again; “a nigger among niggers is but a nigger still.”

In 1849, when I undertook my second visit to Great Britain, I resolved to prolong and extend my travel and intercourse with the best class of men, with a view to see if I could banish that troublesome old ghost entirely out of my mind. In England, Scotland, Wales, France, Germany, Belgium and Prussia, my whole power has been concentrated on this object. “I’ll be a man, and I’ll kill off this enemy which has haunted me these twenty years and more.” I believe I have succeeded in some good degree; at least, I have now no more trouble on the score of equal manhood with the whites. My European tour was certainly useful, because there the trial was fair and honorable. I had nothing to complain of. I got what was due to man, and I was expected to do what was due from man to man. I sought not to be treated as a pet. I put myself into the harness, and wrought manfully in the first pulpits, and the platforms in peace congresses, conventions, anniversaries, commencements, &c.; and in these exercises that rusty old iron came out of my soul, and went “clean away.”

You say again you have never seen a slave how ever careless and merry-hearted, who had not this sore place, and that did not shrink or get angry if a finger was laid on it. I see that you have been a close observer of negro nature.

52So far as I understand your idea, I think you are perfectly correct in the impression you have received, as explained in your note.

O, Mrs. Stowe, slavery is an awful system! It takes man as God made him; it demolishes him, and then mis-creates him, or perhaps I should say mal-creates him!
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