Modern scholars and readers have criticized the book for what are seen as condescending racist descriptions of the book's black characters, especially with regard to the characters' appearances, speech, and behavior, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom in accepting his fate. The novel's creation and use of common stereotypes about African Americans is significant because Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel in the world during the 19th century. As a result, the book (along with illustrations from the book and associated stage productions) played a major role in permanently ingraining these stereotypes into the American psyche.
Among the stereotypes of blacks in Uncle Tom's Cabin are the "happy darky" (in the lazy, carefree character of Sam); the light-skinned tragic mulatto as a sex object (in the characters of Eliza, Cassy, and Emmeline); the affectionate, dark-skinned female mammy (through several characters, including Mammy, a cook at the St. Clare plantation); the pickaninny stereotype of black children (in the character of Topsy); the Uncle Tom, an African American who is too eager to please white people. Stowe intended Tom to be a "noble hero." The stereotype of him as a "subservient fool who bows down to the white man" evidently resulted from staged "Tom Shows", over which Stowe had no control.
These negative associations have to a large degree overshadowed the historical impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a "vital antislavery tool." The beginning of this change in the novel's perception had its roots in an essay by James Baldwin titled "Everybody's Protest Novel." In the essay, Baldwin called Uncle Tom's Cabin a "very bad novel" which was also racially obtuse and aesthetically crude. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Power and Black Arts Movements attacked the novel, saying that the character of Uncle Tom engaged in "race betrayal", and that Tom made slaves out to be worse than slave owners. Criticisms of the other stereotypes in the book also increased during this time. In recent years, however, scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. have begun to re-examine Uncle Tom's Cabin, stating that the book is a "central document in American race relations and a significant moral and political exploration of the character of those relations."