Skip to content

Writing to Right the Spirit of Adoption: The Adoptive Mother / Savior in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin", Harriet E. Wilson’s "Our Nig", and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Moses: A Story of the Nile”

Sharifa Hampton

Pages 353 - 377



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0.

Creative Commons License

The trope of interracial adoption is complex but fairly common in American literature, particularly as it results in the racist and racialized hallmark of displacing and depicting Black women as bad Black mothers—the antithesis of White maternity. This essay posits the trope’s genesis at the center of abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe’s extraordinarily influential anti-slavery novel, "Uncle Tom’s Cabin". The novel has been heralded as the most significant literary accomplishment by an American writer, both nationally and internationally, during the nineteenth century. Notwithstanding, Stowe’s novel sets in motion the cultural ideology that Whiteness—in the form of adoption by a free, White, Christian mother / savior—is a direct route out of bondage for enslaved Black children. Necessarily and in direct response, Harriet E. Wilson’s autobiographical novel, "Our Nig," and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poem, “Moses: A Story of the Nile,” bring the complicated anti-Black and White constructions of power, motherhood, consanguinity, and kinship into sharp relief. Taken together, their writings form an episodic and polyscopic perspective on belonging, bondage, freedom, and agency. Most importantly, Wilson’s and Harper’s texts amplify the historical remainder of and tension between ways of understanding racialized adoption and insist that the literary (human) being that is the Black mother be made legible.

Key Words: interracial adoption; nineteenth-century literature; childhood in slavery; bad Black mother and motherhood; White mother / savior; Black women’s writing

1 Ammons, Elizabeth. Introduction. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Casebook. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Norton, 1994. vii-ix. Print.

2 ---. “Stowe’s Dream of the Mother-Savior: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Women Writers before the 1920’s.” New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ed. Eric Sundquist. New York: Cambridge UP, 1986. 155-95. Print.

3 “Black Children, White Parents.” New York Times 27 Nov. 1993: 18. Print.

4 Briggs, Laura. Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012. Print.

5 Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990. Print.

6 Eastman, Mary H. Aunt Phillis’s Cabin; Or, Southern Life as It Is. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo, 1852. Print.

7 Fielder, Brigitte. “‘Those People Must Have Loved Her Very Dearly’: Interracial Adoption and Radical Love in Antislavery Children’s Literature.” Early American Studies 14.4 (2016): 749-80. Web. 28 Apr. 2022.

8 Foster, Frances Smith. Introduction. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. By Frances Harper. Ed. Frances Foster. New York: Feminist P at the City U of New York, 1990. 3-40. Print.

9 Frederick, John T. “Hawthorne’s ‘Scribbling Women.’” The New England Quarterly 48.2 (1975): 231-40. Web. 28 Apr. 2022.

10 Garcia, Claire Oberon, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charise Pimentel, eds. From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life. New York: Macmillan, 2014. Print.

11 Harper, Frances E. W. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader. Ed. Frances Smith Foster. New York: Feminist P at the City U of New York, 1990. Print.

12 Harris, Leslie J. “Motherhood, Race, and Gender: The Rhetoric of Women’s Antislavery Activism in the Liberty Bell Giftbooks.” Women’s Studies in Communications 32.3 (2009): 293-319. Web. 28 Apr. 2022.

13 Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print.

14 Hentz, Caroline Lee. The Planter’s Northern Bride. Philadelphia, PA: T. B. Peterson, 1854. Print.

15 Jamieson, Erin. “Systemic Racism as a Living Text: Implications of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a Fictionalized Narrative of Present and Past Black Bodies.” Journal of African American Studies 22.4 (2018): 329-44. Web. 31 May 2022.

16 Jerng, Mark C. Claiming Others: Transracial Adoption and National Belonging. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.

17 Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2019. Print.

18 Jordan-Lake, Joy. Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists Respond to Stowe. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 2005. Print.

19 King, Tiffany Lethabo. The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2019. Print.

20 Morgan, Jennifer L. “Partus sequitur ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 22.1 (2018): 1-17. Web. 2 Aug. 2022.

21 NABSW (National Association of Black Social Workers). “Transracial Adoption Statement.” 1972. National Association of Black Social Workers, 2013. 31 Jan. 2022. Web.

22 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” 1965. U.S. Department of Labor, n. d. Web. 31 Jan. 2022.

23 Nell, William C. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution: With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons. New York: Arno, 1968. Print.

24 Novy, Marianne. Imagining Adoption: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2011. Print.

25 Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. With a New Preface. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982. Print.

26 Porter, Susan L. “A Good Home: Indenture and Adoption in Nineteenth-Century Orphanages.” Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives. Ed. E. Wayne Carp. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2009. 27-50. Print.

27 Reynolds, David S. Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. New York: Norton, 2011. Print.

28 Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon, 1997. Print.

29 ---. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. New York: Basic, 2002. Print.

30 Rutkowski, Alice. “Leaving the Good Mother: Frances E. W. Harper, Lydia Maria Child, and the Literary Politics of Reconstruction.” Legacy 25.1 (2008): 83-104. Web. 28 Apr. 2022.

31 Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2016. Print.

32 Simms, William Gilmore. The Sword and the Distaff: Or, “Fair, Fat and Forty.” A Story of the South at the Close of the Revolution. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo. 1853. Print.

33 Singley, Carol J. Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

34 Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81. Web. 28 Apr. 2022.

35 Still, William. The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, & C., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-Breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, Or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers, of the Road. Philadelphia, PA: Porter & Coates, 1871. Print.

36 Stowe, Harriet B. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.

37 Weinstein, Cindy. Family, Kinship, and Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

38 Welter, Barbara. Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio UP, 1976. Print.

39 Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig, Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. 1859. New York: Vintage, 2002.

40 Wisseh, Assatu N. “Mother Myths: Cinematic Representation of Eurocentric Diffusion in Losing Isaiah.” Black Camera 11.2 (2020): 158-75. Web. 28 Apr. 2022.


Export Citation