Black people who hang too much around white people, act obsequiously towards white people or have too many natural white tendencies and inclinations are at risk of being labeled an Uncle Tom.I\’ve primarily heard it as a slight against Black Republicans—the Clarence Thomases and Ben Carsons of the world who preach All Lives Matter and other ideologically equivalent arguments in rooms full of white people—black people who pander to wealthy, white interests.It\’s a term meant to change a person\’s behavior by hurting their feelings. But instead of changing the perceived Tom\’s behavior, said Tom usually becomes defensive and snaps back an argument about the bankruptcy of identity politics, that all black people don\’t have to think the same way.\”Uncle Tom\” did not always have this vitriolic connotation though.
In her excellent book, Uncle Tom: From Martyr to Traitor, Adena Spingarn shows how Uncle Tom developed from being the hero and martyr of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Antebellum novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, into a cultural phenomenon and then a negative nickname.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold millions of copies and became the best-selling book of the nineteenth century after the Bible. It is credited with causing an international moral awakening to the horrors of American slavery. It is also estimated that each copy of the book was shared between 8 to 10 readers and that for every reader of the book, 50 people saw a theatre adaptation!
Harriet Beecher Stowe depicts Uncle Tom as a principled man with an unwavering Christian core. He’s beaten to death by his master by refusing to snitch on two runaway slaves.
In another poignant scene before his death, Uncle Tom refuses the request of his Master Legree to whip another slave and is quickly punished himself.
His master breaks into a villainous monologue, declaring,
“Here, you rascal, you make believe to be so pious,—didn\’t you never hear, out of yer Bible, \’Servants, obey yer masters\’? An\’t I yer master? Didn\’t I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black shell? An\’t yer mine, now, body and soul?”
He kicks Tom and yells at him to submit.
But, “In the very depth of physical suffering, bowed by brutal oppression, this question shot a gleam of joy and triumph through Tom\’s soul. He suddenly stretched himself up, and, looking earnestly to heaven, while the tears and blood that flowed down his face mingled, he exclaimed, ‘No! no! no! my soul an\’t yours, Mas\’r! You haven\’t bought it,—ye can\’t buy it! It\’s been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it;—no matter, no matter, you can\’t harm me!’
However, the thousands of theatre adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, showed all over the country, often took artistic liberty with the plot and characters, and warped the original image of Uncle Tom into a more fragile and submissive figure.
Many Southeners thought Uncle Tom\’s Cabin was too harsh of a depiction of slavery. One such Southener, David Wark Griffith, was particularly distraught over how evil slavery was portrayed in an Uncle Tom\’s Cabin play he saw, that he resolved to revive the image of the South. Better known as D.W. Griffith, he directed The Birth of a Nation, the first film ever shown in the White House, to Woodrow Wilson, that represented the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic brigade of men protecting America from impure and sinful black people.
It was the vast popularity of Uncle Tom’s quiet moral leadership that black leaders also began to resent and feel was antithetical to progress at the turn of the 20th century.
Uncle Tom became a politicized pejorative in the black activist community to renounce more passive strategies.
In 1920, during the first convention of the Marcus Garvey-led Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) at Madison Square Garden, protest signs read “Uncle Tom’s dead and buried,” and Reverend George Alexander Mcguire proclaimed that “the Uncle Tom nigger has got to go and his place must be taken by the new leader of the Negro race… not a black man with a white heart but a black man with a black heart.”
And the term just endured. Decades later, in an 1963 interview with Kenneth Clark, Malcolm X called Martin Luther King Jr. an Uncle Tom, that was \”doing the same thing today to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of attack that Uncle Tom did on the plantation to keep those Negroes defenseless…\”While a reader of Spingarn\’s book could easily go around telling people that they are misunderstanding Uncle Tom whenever they say it, Spingarn believes that more of an appreciation is in order.She concludes her book writing, \”Can Uncle Tom’s Cabin ever shed its association with Uncle Tom’s contemporary meaning? Perhaps it shouldn’t. As much as this figure’s long and controversial life reveals the intensity of racial divisions in America, there is also something heartening in the tenacity with which we have held on to Stowe’s character and molded it for our own use. As many contemporary commentators have observed, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a reminder of the immense power of literature to help societies work through their most complex problems. But it is also evidence of the central role that characters can take in activating that use. In a starkly divided nation, we need another work of literature as transformative as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But we also need another character as shocking, as familiar, as vital as Uncle Tom.\”Edit: May 25 2020There has been an incredible development in this 150 year history of \”Uncle Tom\”. Larry Elder, a black conservative, has lead the creation of a black and white documentary about black conservatives in America titled \”Uncle Tom\”. The film \”goes live\” on the important black June 19th holiday, Juneteenth. (The holiday celebrates the date June 19, 1865, when the last black American slaves in Galveston, Texas were finally told by Union soliders that they were free, two and a half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trdrccMp-Dg&feature=emb_logoThere\’s probably nothing said in this documentary that black conservatives haven\’t repeated a thousand times before. But from this teaser, it seems like they speak at a slower pace so people take their arguments more seriously.The real reason I had to make this update was to document the complementary merchandise these documentarians want to sell and laugh with you about it. What better way to reclaim \”Uncle Tom\” than to proudly wear on it your shirts, hoodies, tank tops, and socks. And while you\’re at it, why not drink your earl grey out of an Uncle Tom mug or shop with your environmentally conscious Uncle Tom tote bag.If socialism isn\’t more entertaining than this, I don\’t want it.