Despite all its flaws, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Christian abolitionist activism is inspiring and leads me to an ahistorical question: if Stowe were alive today, what issues would she be most concerned with? In the weeks since our visit to the Stowe Center, the activist landscape has been dominated by the “Occupy” movement. Started on Wall St as a living protest against economic injustice and the concentration of resources, power and policy among the richest few Americans, the movement has spread to Hartford and other cities across the world. Recently, on a radio program, I heard that the percentage of actual unemployment in the country is about 16%, including those people who have stopped looking for jobs. The guest on the program said that was about the same percentage of people in this country who were slaves in the mid-1800s. This parallel between slavery and today’s economic situation is striking.
An obvious answer to the Stowe question above is human trafficking. In fact, the Stowe Center has done several programs of late on the issue. They recently awarded the authors of Half the Sky for their work in this area. But, would that be Stowe’s only issue? During our workshop conducted by Stowe Center staff, and Professor Joan Hedrick, Stowe expert from Trinity College, parallels to other issues arose. For instance, undocumented immigration and its relationship to the country’s economy drew particular focus. Is this the newest incarnation of economic slavery? Today much of our economy depends on a depressed and vulnerable stratum of society, caused and perpetuated by a confluence of factors including so-called free trade policies, employer over-reliance on cheap expendable labor, and a lack of deterrents for such employers. Despite the charged political debate, little has been done to actually address the supply and demand reality that makes undocumented labor so prevalent.
So, perhaps Stowe would fight against the injustices towards undocumented workers.
But, back to Occupy Hartford. I want to believe that Stowe would have had an affinity for the 99%, the statistical rallying cry of the Occupy movement. What I really wonder about, however, is if the tactics would be too much for her Protestant ethic. Given her criticisms of William Lloyd Garrison and his publication, The Liberator, I have doubts as to whether Stowe would march downtown or squat a park to achieve the ideals of the Occupy movement, even as that movement has set up camp just a couple miles from her Hartford home.
Where would Stowe occupy? Probably nowhere, but she might write a novel. How about Uncle Tom’s Tent?