By Michelle Davey
Published in 1852, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was written by a staunch abolitionist who focused on the terrible nature of slavery. But in the following half-century, some of the many plays adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel took a pro-slavery slant. Most depicted slaves in degrading ways, creating stereotypes that still affect racial relations in America today.
This summer, secondary school teachers from all over Ohio will have the opportunity to make a trip to Ohio University for an institute about this controversial novel. The program, slated for July 6-11, is funded by the university's Charles J. Ping Institute for the Teaching of the Humanities and the Ohio Humanities Council.
The Ping Institute is covering roughly $15,000 to the project, and the OHC is matching that with a grant, said William Condee, a professor of theater in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts. Condee proposed the summer program to the Ping Institute, which supports activities designed for the teaching of the humanities, and applied for the OHC grant.
The summer institute, called "Uncle Tom's Cabin: Race in 19th Century Ohio," will use an interdisciplinary approach to study the history, culture, literature and drama of the book and play in hopes of exploring the racial issues of today. About 20 secondary teachers, mainly in social studies and English, will participate. Teachers will be able to use the information and ideas presented to stimulate discussion in their classrooms about the historical and cultural sources of racial issues in America.
"We will be using 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' as a lens to understand what was happening regarding race in Ohio in the 19th century," Condee said. Although the novel was anti-slavery, the dramatic reproductions perpetuated negative racial stereotypes, becoming "an engine of racism," he said.
Three other Ohio University faculty members are involved.
Vibert Cambridge, a professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies, specializes in the African-American presence in the Ohio River Valley. For the summer program, he will lead discussions about race relations in Ohio, particularly the southeast region.
"(The program) will help to bring to light an understudied aspect of American history, specifically the role this region played in the Underground Railroad and other forms of inter-racial resistance to slavery," Cambridge said.
Tom Scanlan, an associate professor of English and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, will lead discussions about the novel's publication and original reception.
Bringing the perspective of a contemporary artist, Professor Charles Smith, head of the School of Theater's playwriting program, will discuss his own plays' fictional accounts of historical American-American figures.
Smith's latest play, "Knock Me a Kiss," about the Harlem Renaissance period, will have its own workshop in the spring, led by Condee. The May 17 workshop also is for secondary school teachers, and Condee hopes it will draw in participants for the summer program.
"I am hoping it will create a conversation beginning in the spring and continuing into summer," Condee said. "It's hard for us to talk about race; those are difficult conversations and raise difficult issues. Issues raised by 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' are still issues today. One of my goals is to create a safe forum for those difficult discussions."
Tom Carpenter, a professor of humanities and director of the Ping Institute, said the program is a perfect fit for his institute's mission to help secondary instructors teach the humanities.
"Our focus is on high school teachers, in particular, and we are trying to find ways to present them with exciting materials to teach," he said. "This seemed to fit the bill nicely."
For more information on "Uncle Tom's Cabin: Race in 19th Century Ohio," contact the Ping Institute at Ping.Institute@ohio.edu or 740-593-4266.
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