An Uncle Tom is a term being thrown around in the last few weeks. I have seen it used to describe Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas both recently and in the past. An Uncle Tom is defined as “a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites” (Merriam-Webster). A friend used the term to refer to homosexuals who excuse the anti-homosexual agenda being debated and legislated upon in several states; Arizona being the chief among them. The origin of the term comes from Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, of almost the same name(“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) that condemns slavery. The problem with the term Uncle Tom and its accepted derogatory definition do not line up with the real characterization of the character Uncle Tom as portrayed in Stowe’s book. This article will first outline the true view of Uncle Tom as portrayed in Stowe’s novel. Next, it will explain where the derogatory term originated. Lastly it will analyze why its a horrible and discriminatory term for anyone to use including blacks. Thus, calling a person an Uncle Tom is more could condemn the person using as a bigot than of the person its being used against.
Written by Stowe during the height of American sectional related to slavery and published in 1851, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” condemns the southern slavery system. The story traces the lives of several slaves within the system, the title character of Uncle Tom being the chief protagonists. Throughout the story Uncle Tom is sold many times, through no fault of his own, to progressively worse masters and further south. In these situation Tom accepts his fate most of the time. The biggest change in his character is near the end when he refuses to listen to his master’s orders to whip a fellow slave. He also refuses to stop reading the Bible, encourages slaves to escape and eventually killed by his master for not obeying his orders. Even with this brief description the calling a person an Uncle Tom is not a correct depiction of the derogatory term used so often against black Republicans and conservatives. While Tom does not actively fight against the White power structure in the entire novel, he could not be seen as a person who supports slavery or is overeager to win the approval of whites. He is just the opposite. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jessie Jackson, Jr., and other black leaders of either political party could be called Uncle Toms and look on the term with pride, if used correctly. The problem with the term is that it is not based on Stowe’s original work. It is based on a satirical play that totally changes the character and the meaning of the term.
When someone calls a black person an Uncle Tom today, it refers to the derivative works of Stowe which she had not control (Williams, 2002). These works transformed Tom from a sympathetic Christ-like figure who actively fights against the white slavery system and power to a foolish, apologist, that supports the slave system in the American south (Meer, 2005). These inaccurate depictions of Uncle Tom have been the basis of the term used today. This view of Tom goes completely against the view Stowe had when she published her novel and she would have disagreed with the term as an insult for blacks (Keyes, 2002). The point being calling a person an Uncle Tom is not a correct term based on the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe. To call a person this term, with this definition actually supports a racists view of blacks and African-Americans because it characterizes Tom inaccurately and in a stereotypical view of black created by already avowed racists and bigots.
This history of the term Uncle Tom is clearly and obviously misunderstood and used incorrectly in modern America. To this end what should our reaction be, as citizens, to the use of this term in U.S. History. First, we should condemn anyone who uses it because any use condemning blacks of supporting the “white” power is clearly an incorrect use of the term. To that end we should educate our fellow citizens as to the true literary and historical meaning of the term and show how calling a person an “Uncle Tom” is actually a positive term. Secondly, we need to educate people who would suggest that blacks and/or African-Americans have to support a particular party or political agenda is just as bigoted as an Uncle Tom. The view that all black are required to members of the liberal Democratic Party and acts in their best interest is an ignorant view an educated and civil society. It implies that blacks cannot think for themselves and choose for themselves their own political beliefs. It implies that any one political party has a monopoly on the interest or agenda of any one particular group. It also ignores history that shows the best friends of blacks for much of our history was the Republican Party while Democrats supported slavery, Jim Crowe laws and institutionalize racism and segregation for over one hundred years after the Civil War. In the end the use of the term, Uncle Tom, shows that the person who uses the term probably more clearly an Uncle Tom than the person who is called this term, because the term supports a racists view of blacks.
Calling a person an Uncle Tom is a condemnation of the person using as a bigot than of the person its being used against, because they clearly don’t understand the real intended meaning of the term. This article first laid out the original intent of Stowe when writing Uncle Tom in her novel in the 1850s. It is a term of praise for a person who fights against the white power and slavery system. Next we traced the meaning of the term to today as it springs from works meant to make fun of Stowe’s original. These works distort the terms real meaning based on the author’s real intent in their writing. Lastly, we examined how we could respond to people who use this term. What is the take away from this article. We must be careful what we call people. Calling a person an Uncle Tom clearly betrays the meaning intended by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her classical work. But if we studied what it really meant we would realize being an Uncle Tom is not such a bad thing and that the use of the term discriminates against people who just have a different political perspective than the rest of or part of a group. We should know what we say before we say it, and for that we have to understand the words we use.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Thanks for reading and have a nice day!
Linda Williams (2002). Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Princeton University Press. pp. 7, 30–31 47–62. ISBN 978-0-691-10283-2. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
Sarah Meer (2005). Uncle Tom mania: slavery, minstrelsy, and transatlantic culture in the 1850s. University of Georgia Press. pp. 1–4, 9, 14–15. ISBN 978-0-8203-2737-2. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
“Uncle Tom.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Uncle Tom>.