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Uncle Tom is associated with negative, self-denigrating attributes. An Uncle Tom is a black person who is submissive, docile, self-effacing, a race traitor, and psychologically dependent on, nonthreatening to, and always anxious to please, and gain the validation of, whites. Though Uncle Tom is associated with negative qualities, its history is much more complex. Its origin is traced to two major works. The first is the 1849 autobiography of a black slave, Josiah Henson, whose experiences and personality supposedly inspired the second, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson was a slave on a plantation in Montgomery, Maryland, owned by Amos Riley. His autobiography catalogued the cruelties of slavery. He escaped to Canada in 1830, settling in Dresden, Ontario, Canada, where he started the Dawn Settlement, which provided opportunities for fugitives to learn skills. He also assisted in establishing the British American Institute, an industrial school for the education of fugitives.
Written in angry response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which authorized the capture and re-enslavement of fugitives, Stowe’s novel was a scathing indictment of slavery. The central character, Tom, is spiritually and morally superior to his white owners. Tom’s life revealed, in horrific details, the atrocities of slavery. He was repeatedly whipped for refusing his owner’s order to whip fellow slaves. He was sold several times, his last owner beating him to death for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of two fugitive slaves. Even as he lay dying, Tom prayed for, and forgave, his owner.
Stowe came from a white New England abolitionist family and lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1830s, across the bridge from slaveholding Kentucky. She taught at a school for former slave children and witnessed the atrocities of slavery. Returning to New England in 1850, she decided to write a book detailing her thoughts about slavery.Tom’s humility, Christian character, and forgiving nature led to the modern association of his name with attributes of compromise and self-denigration.
The paradox of Uncle Tom, however, is that neither of the two characters with which the concept is associated embodied such negative qualities. Stowe’s Tom resisted, albeit in a passive way. He disobeyed orders he deemed inhumane and refused to betray fellow slaves even at the risk of punishment and death. He once risked his life to save a drowning little white girl. Henson’s life reflected similar heroism and nobility. Riley was so incompetent that Henson was left in charge of the operations of the farms. Threatened with seizure by creditors, Riley entrusted Henson with transferring his slaves to Kentucky for safekeeping. For Henson, personal freedom was not an end. He worked hard to help others not only become free but also acquire the skills to make freedom meaningful. These qualities of courage and nobility conflict with the use of Uncle Tom as an epithet for blacks who betrayed their own race or who are deemed submissive and deferential to whites. During the civil rights movement, Malcolm X frequently referred to Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders as Uncle Toms. Black officials who oppose affirmative action or race-based policies are tagged Uncle Toms. In 2002 the American Directory of Certified Uncle Toms was published. It ranked over fifty black leaders according to a five-star Uncle Tom rating. Uncle Tom thus became a means of cultural policing to determine who is authentically black.
There are two modern versions of Uncle Tom. The first is the docile, loyal, contented person who accommodates lowly status. The second is the ambitious black person who seems willing to be subordinate to whites in order to achieve a more favorable status. Both characters overtly identify with whites either because of fear or opportunism. It is important, however, to distinguish between Uncle Tom the character and Uncle Tom the concept. Neither the historical (Henson), nor literary (Tom) Uncle Tom was a betrayer or compromiser. Their lives demonstrated courage, rebellion, and nobility. They both resisted. Henson escaped and created the institutions that helped other fugitives adjust to life in freedom. Tom disobeyed orders he deemed inhumane and sacrificed his life rather than betray fellow slaves. Critics have nevertheless mistaken their peaceful strategies and nobility for meekness and compromise. Hence, while the concept Uncle Tom might be negative, depicting a coward and compromiser, the characters from whom it originated did not fit into such negative constructions. Furthermore, the “Tom” epithet is not necessarily a negation of the person’s blackness. It disparages behavioral and idiosyncratic dispositions that contradict perceived collective interests of blacks.
- Kauremszky, Ilona. 2005. Uncle Tom Was a Real Person; HisCabin Is in Canada. Christian Science Monitor, January 26: 11. http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0126/p11s02-trgn.html.
- Laurence, Richard. 2002. American Directory of Certified UncleToms. New York: CBIA Publishing.
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1994. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Norton.
- Stuteville, George. 2005. “Uncle Tom” Today: From Slavery to Obscurity? National Geographic, February 17.
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