Lessons of slavery take center stage

When the bestselling novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was turned into minstrel shows not long after its publication in 1852, distorted versions of the title character took on a life of their own (see story, this page). Now there's a musical that brings the story full circle, again highlighting slavery's human tragedies.

"Writing Pictures: The Harriet Beecher Stowe Experience" was created last year by teacher Mark Wilson and a group of students at the Greater Hartford (Conn.) Academy of the Arts. They plan to restage it in February 2003.

Only one of the 28 high-schoolers had read the novel before they started this after-school project, Mr. Wilson says. But they appreciated having more time to learn about slavery than history class provided. In class, Wilson says, "they don't have the opportunity to empathize with the people living through it."

The African-American students, "were totally immersed in thinking about what it felt like" to be enslaved, Wilson recalls. Later, audience members asked about those feelings or told stories of their own, and black students came away feeling proud of their heritage.

The students also researched the book's white author at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, which maintains her childhood home as well as primary documents on slavery and abolitionists (www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org). Her experience resonated with the teens because "there was a black-and-white-coming-together story there," Wilson says.

A century and a half after Stowe took up her pen to humanize people who had long been treated like objects, new generations of students still struggle to understand slavery's legacy. Sometimes, in the process, they become the teachers.

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