Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Racial Geopolitics of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Geography Textbooks

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Racial Geopolitics of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Geography Textbooks

Article excerpt

Harriet Beecher's first book, Primary Geography for Children, published in 1833, is barely known today, and neither is its thoroughly revised version, First Geography for Children, published in 1855. (1) These textbooks elucidate Stowe's stance on the civic futures of African Americans more explicitly than her novels do because they treat slavery and abolition as geopolitical concerns within a global context.' Thus, these neglected texts shed light on Stowe's abolitionist support for African colonization, one of the most vexed questions in Stowe scholarship. First raised in contemporaneous critiques of Uncle Tom's Cabin, this problem has been revisited often. For decades, scholars viewed Stowe's abolitionist support of colonization as paradoxical. Rejecting this interpretation, Michelle Burnham redefines colonization as "central" to the "resolution" of Uncle Tom's Cabin (121), and Amy Kaplan states that "colonization underwrites the racial politics of the domestic imagination" (48). Ezra Tawil similarly reconciles the "racialism" and "antislavery politics" of Uncle Tom's Cabin and explains their interrelation in terms of generic conventions (155). Like the tradition they revise, Burnham, Kaplan, and Tawil treat this issue as a literary question. I extend their readings of the coalescence of Stowe's abolitionist and colonizationist commitments beyond her novels.

The geography textbooks show that this coalescence is integral to Stowe's understanding of the globe. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred, but far more elaborately, they counter African American claims for US citizenship. The textbooks not only extend this exclusion beyond the United States to cover the Americas but also undermine the possibility of free polities in Africa. Stowe's novels never dramatize Africa: Uncle Tom's Cabin portrays it briefly as a benighted continent in need of Christian and republican redemption, and Dred reduces it to the geographic origin of slaves. In the geography books, by contrast, Stowe depicts Africa as a region marked by harsh environmental and human conditions that must frustrate the promises of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Conversely, these books almost never mention free or fugitive African Americans (who figure prominently in the novels), but portray them implicitly as a pathological population trapped in geopolitical limbo, deprived of spatial belonging and identification. The books highlight this limbo by emphasizing the antithetical role of white US citizens as agents of national evangelical expansion.

Throughout Primary Geography for Children and First Geography for Children, the joint development of Stowe's faith in expansionism and in abolition leads her to embrace what we may call antiracist reform and simultaneously to reject the enfranchisement of African Americans. For Stowe, I argue, antiracism is a moral commitment consistent with the geopolitical necessity of removing African Americans from the United States. Stowe's geopolitical view rests on the ideas that a natural geographic order separates distinct racial groups and that whites are the only appropriate subjects of US space, history, and destiny. In these two books, the white child embodies national geopolitics, and this exclusive embodiment makes African American bodies incompatible with the nation. Extending Karen Sanchez-Eppler's understanding of embodiment as "cultural conceptions of the corporeality of identity" (Touching Liberty 3), I attach it to territoriality to show how the affinity between the white child's body and national space renders the black body nationally unintelligible and prevents its being mapped onto national geography.

Stowe's two geography textbooks illuminate the dependence of antislavery sentiment on racial exclusion because (unlike her novels) they allow us to compare the author's perspectives on geopolitics and race before and after her ideological conversion to Manifest Destiny and immediate abolition. Stowe's political commitments shifted around 1845, when Manifest Destiny became a staple of US policy and she published her first abolitionist work, a sketch titled "Immediate Emancipation. …

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