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Smith: The nuances of ‘Uncle Tom’

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For nearly as far back as I can recall, I have been familiar with “Uncle Tom.” Of course, that is the name of the titular (and still well-known) character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

It is very difficult to overstate the historical, cultural and even psychological significance of that book. Indeed, many historians argue that it played a substantial role in galvanizing the anti-slavery sentiment that ultimately led to the Civil War. (An apocryphal story says that, upon meeting Stowe, President Lincoln said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”)

For those who have not read the book, Uncle Tom is a Christ-like figure who positively influences nearly everyone with whom he comes in contact — children and adults. While he never accepts slavery, he tries to comfort his fellow enslaved human beings even as he attempts to mitigate the violence of the human traffickers who wield such control over their lives. Ultimately, Tom is murdered because he is unwilling to divulge the location of two enslaved women who have escaped to freedom. He forgives his murderers as he dies. (This is an example of the messianic persona with which Stowe imbues her protagonist.)

Given this backdrop, many people view as ironic the fact that the book’s namesake has become such a controversial figure among African Americans. Specifically, calling someone an “Uncle Tom” (or various female equivalents) is perhaps the most hurtful and derogatory epithet that one Black person can hurl at another. We generally view Uncle Tom as a subservient, “shuffling” negro — the stereotypical “happy darkie” of the so-called “Old South.” In short, calling someone an “Uncle Tom” is intended to convey that one is not a proud Black man, one who has been socially and psychologically castrated.

Historically, the title “uncle” was applied to older Black men in the South. (Black males were “boys” until they became middle-aged or older; they became “uncles” after that.) Whites considered it to be an “honorific” moniker — which they employed to keep from referring to Black men as “Mr.”

In short, the traits that Stowe undoubtedly viewed as Tom’s greatest strengths (e.g., his unwavering faith, his humility, his ability to forgive) cause most modern African Americans to view him as weak and docile. As Black folks became more “militant” over the years (i.e., demanded to be treated as fully human), Tom increasingly became viewed as the antithesis of Black pride and masculinity.

I have witnessed many people, especially African Americans, argue that viewing Uncle Tom in a negative light reflects an ignorance (or, perhaps, a willful ignoring) of Tom’s inner strength and morality. They say that he should be viewed as a heroic figure rather than one who is to be derided. Such views align with what Stowe intended. To that extent, the arguments are historically accurate. They also completely miss the point.

Authors don’t control how their characters are received. Literary figures’ place in culture (whether the characters are real or fictional) is determined via a collective social exercise in which the public is the ultimate arbiter. In the same way that professional literary and movie critics very rarely determine whether characters become loved (or hated), amateur critics who stick to the “facts” of the text have limited utility. Only rarely does the minority control the narrative, such as the way in which the Daughters of the Confederacy began to peddle the “Lost Cause” mythology immediately after the Civil War ended. Generally, the perspective of the majority rules.

(As an aside, I can’t decide whether it’s tragic or comical that the people who are perpetuating the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election are so concerned about portraying a fictional character accurately.)

Uncle Tom is, quite literally, one dimensional. He is a phantom that appears in block letters on a page. He has no feelings that can be hurt, no emotions that can be affected, no tears that can be shed. Conversely, real-life African Americans are three dimensional. In the words of Apostle Paul (and Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard), we are working out our spiritual and social salvation “with fear and trembling.” Let us allow ourselves the grace to embrace that which genuinely gives us succor, sustenance and strength. Let us reject that which steals the same.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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