72. The Uncle Tom in Me

Posted: March 20, 2010 in African American, Black History, Black Pride, Literature
Tags: ,

Recently, I heard someone refer to another brother as an Uncle Tom.  Although the remark was intended to degrade the target of the remarks, it only demonstrated the users lack of historical and literary acuteness associated with the terminology.

Not unlike most that use the term; to grossly mislabel another while attempting to belittle that person often backfires in a way that demonstrates one’s own lacking of Black history and ultimately the knowledge of self.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Published in 1852, the novel had a profound effect on attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the United States, so much in the latter case that the novel intensified the sectional conflict leading to the American Civil War.

The author Harriet Stowe, a Connecticut-born preacher at the Hartford Female Academy and an active abolitionist, focused the novel on the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters—both fellow slaves and slave owners—revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible.  It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s.  In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States alone. The book’s impact was so great that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln is often quoted as having declared, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”

The book, and even more the plays it inspired, also helped create a number of stereotypes about Black people, many of which endure to this day. These include the affectionate, dark-skinned “mammy”; the “pickaninny” stereotype of black children; and the Uncle Tom, or dutiful, long-suffering servant faithful to his white master or mistress. In recent years, the negative associations with Uncle Tom’s Cabin have, to an extent, overshadowed the historical impact of the book as a “vital antislavery tool.” wiki

How many of us have done whatever we had to do in order to survive in the midst of an oppressive situation.  Anybody remember when racist cops and discriminatory lunch counters were the order of the day?  Although we life to romanticize the vigilant 60’s, bear in mind that many of us tolerated untold oppression at the hand of the oppressor.

So I ask the question: “Was Uncle Tom really an Uncle Tom?”  Or was he simply a symbiotic depiction of the innate ability for survival?  I dare to say most of us (and our grandparents) silently accepted the frequency of dehumanization in order to preserve the race in hopes of a brighter tomorrow.  A tomorrow where our children’s children are so comfortable that they fail to realize the significance of the suffering that predates their ipods, x-boxes and their cell phones.

Truth be told, the spirit of Stowe’s fictitious character Tom resides in many of us today.  Don’t be ashamed of it.  Recognize it. Embrace it.  Appreciate what it represented and never forget it.

D’s deux ¢

Copyright © 2010

  1. Sabin says:

    Definitely thought-provoking. Many would totally misunderstand just what you mean by the title. But we can count on Father’s Footprints to shine a light on our history! So because of you, that number who would have misunderstood will shrink once they read this post. Keep it going!

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