Don't Blame Uncle Tom
How a literary figure of passive resistance became a byword for lackey and sell-out
By Gary Younge
[Reprinted from Issues & Views January 2004]
The year 2002 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it is time that Uncle Tom was rehabilitated. Not the Uncle Tom of popular insult; not the “neutralised negro”, “non-practising Black” or “Reverend Pork Chop” charged with undermining black freedom struggles by ingratiating himself with his white overseers. Not the Tom of racial slur, but the Tom of literary history: the original Tom, husband of Chloe, father of Mose, Peter and Polly and creation of Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is time to save the signifier from the sign. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those books which is more likely to be cited in anger than to have been read at leisure. So while most people think they “know” Uncle Tom as the Stepin Fetchit of plantation politics, few have actually met the man who lived on the page and whose good name has been so thoroughly traduced.
So let me introduce you. We first see Tom in his cabin in Kentucky where his slave master, Mr Shelby, is forced to sell two of his slaves to clear his debts. Shelby chooses Tom and Harry, the young son of fellow slave Eliza. Preferring the risk of being caught to the certainty of being split up, Eliza makes a run for it with her child. But Tom, to whom Shelby had promised freedom, refuses to flee.
Later, separated from his wife and family, Tom heads deeper down south in the hands of a slave trader, while Eliza makes it to Canada with her son and husband, who has also fled from another owner, and eventually settles in Liberia.
Tom, meanwhile, is floating on a passenger boat down the Mississippi under the watchful eye of the slave trader when he sees a white girl, Eva, fall overboard and dives in to save her. Eva persuades her father to buy him and Tom becomes the property of Augustine St Clare, a wealthy planter from Louisiana. St Clare also offers Tom his freedom but dies suddenly before it is granted. His wife refuses to honour the promise and sells Tom to the vicious Simon Legree. Legree admires Tom’s diligence but is frustrated by his refusal to do his bidding. When he orders Tom to whip a fellow slave, Tom refuses and is beaten himself.
When two other slaves go missing, Legree threatens Tom with death unless he tells his master where they are. Tom says he knows but won’t say and is fatally thrashed. As he lies, dying, the son of Mr Shelby arrives with the money to honour his father’s promise of freedom in time to see the family’s once favourite slave perish at the hands of a brute.
The story was originally run in an anti-slavery newspaper. But when it was released in book form in March 1852, it was an immediate sensation. In the US alone it sold 300,000 copies in a year, and more than 2m copies by the end of the decade.
What is now commonly regarded as a sentimentalist, racist text was at the time received as a vicious polemic against slavery in general and against the fugitive slave law in particular. In an America divided at the time between the slave-owning south and the “free states” of the north, the law demanded that northerners returned slaves who had escaped back into the bondage of the south.
In a nation bitterly split and destined for civil war on this very issue, the book’s publication, not to mention its success, provoked a vicious reaction. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the epicentre of a massive cultural phenomenon,” writes Richard Yarborough, a California-based academic, in his essay: Strategies of black characterisation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “the tremors of which still affect the relationship between blacks and whites in the United States.”
In the 19th century, the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger instructed his reviewer: “I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume.”
Within two years, pro-slavery writers had answered Uncle Tom’s Cabin with at least 15 novels, similarly polemical in style but arguing that slaves in the south were better off than free workers in the north. One of these novels was called Uncle Robin In His Cabin In Virginia And Tom Without One In Boston.
When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, one year into the American civil war, he greeted her with the words: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” But the novel’s impact was global rather than national. Among those who hailed it as a masterpiece were Ivan Turgenev, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot. The British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, read it three times and admired it not so much for the story as “for the statesmanship of it”.
It was Lenin’s favourite book as a child. “When we try to trace the origins of Vladimir’s political outlook, we often look to what he read in his late adolescence and early manhood,” wrote Robert Service in his biography of Lenin. “But we need to remember that, before these Russian and German male authors imprinted themselves upon his consciousness, an American woman — Harriet Beecher Stowe — had already influenced his young mind.”
Within the confines of its age then, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a progressive text, exerting an influence which few works of literature have done before or since, into the political debate of the time. The problem is that the confines of its age are very narrow indeed. Written by a white woman principally for other white people when black people were still regarded as chattels, its failure to transcend its age is what made it vulnerable to caricature and criticism at a later date. “Although Stowe unquestionably sympathised with the slaves,” writes Yarborough, “her commitment to challenging the claim of black inferiority was frequently undermined by her own endorsement of racial sterotypes.”
For, in terms of any broader sense of universal humanism or anti-racism, let alone radicalism, it is deeply problematic. Stowe likes her “mulattoes” tragic and handsome and her Africans wild and brawny. The black characters in the book are stock types with only three means to confront their enforced degradation — submission, brutalisation or banishment. “Uncle Tom must be killed; George Harris exiled! Heaven for dead Negroes! Liberia for living mulattoes,” an unnamed black writer argued, “Neither can live on the American continent. Death or banishment is our doom.”
The one thing Stowe could not imagine, even though real-lifeheroes like slave rebel Nat Turner and underground railroad organiser Sojourner Truth existed to fuel her imagination, was that some might want to stay and fight. “In order to appreciate the sufferings of the negroes sold south, it must be remembered that all the instinctive affections of that race are peculiarly strong,” she writes in the book. “They are not naturally daring and enterprising, but home-loving and affectionate.” In another work, she describes black people as “confessedly more simple, docile, childlike and affectionate than other races”.
Like most liberals she believed that support for the downtrodden demanded sympathy rather than solidarity. Like most liberals, she thought that liberation could only be granted by the good grace of the powerful rather than achieved by the will and tenacity of the powerless. In one polemical passage Stowe asserts: “There is one thing that every individual can do [about slavery] they can see to it that they feel right.” To that extent Tom must also be rescued from Stowe as well.
So, if you are looking for a revolutionary role model; someone who remains master of his own destiny in the most humiliating of circumstances then Uncle Tom is not your man. But then few people are. His sense of duty, even in bondage, depresses. When his wife encourages him to escape with Eliza he tells her: “Mas’r always found me on the spot — he always will. I never have broke trust… and I never will.” His inability, or unwillingness, to adapt his principles to a greater good, frustrates. Encouraged by another slave to murder the vicious Legree while the latter lies in a drunken stupor, Tom says: “No! good never comes of wickedness. I’d sooner chop my right hand off… The Lord hasn’t called us to wrath. We must suffer, and wait his time.”
If ever there was a character to illustrate Marx’s most famous quote that “[Religion] is the opium of the people,” it is Uncle Tom, who would rather wait for freedom in the afterlife than fight for it on earth. But the less famous part of that same quote better sums up Tom’s morality and provides the cornerstone for his defence: “Religion,” wrote Marx, “is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless condition.” For when Tom is apparently at his most supine he is, nonetheless, motivated by a desire to remain true to his Christian faith rather than to ingratiate himself with his master.
It is from these deep pools of self-belief and moral absolutes that he manages to preserve his humanism, despite conditions which degrade him daily. It is in this consistency that we find Tom’s integrity. It is through it that he is able to assist and defend his fellow slaves and, at times, stand his own ground and still keep himself from loathing whites.
When St Clare asks him if he would not be better off a slave than a free man, Tom responds with a straight: “No.” “Why Tom, you couldn’t possibly have earned, by your work, such clothes and such living as I have given you,” says St Clare. “Know’s all that Mas’r,” says Tom. “But I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything and have ’em mine, than have the best, and have ’em any man else’s.”
Picking cotton alongside a woman whose health is failing, he dumps handfuls that he has picked in her bag. “O, you mustn’t! You donno what they’ll do to ye,” she says. “I can bar it!” said Tom, “better ‘n you.” Shortly afterwards, Legree offers him an easier life if he will whip the woman. “I mean to promote ye, and make a driver of ye; and tonight ye may jes as el begin to get yer hand in. Now, ye jest take this yer gal and flog her.”
Tom is punched when he refuses but finally tells Legree. “I’m willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breath in me; but this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do… t’would be downright cruel… if you mean to kill me, kill me; but as to my raising my hand agin anyone here, I never shall, I’ll die first.” He isn’t killed although he is beaten senseless and has scarcely recovered when Legree finds out two other slaves have fled. He asks Tom to tell him if he knows anything about it and threatens him with death if he refuses.
“I han’t got nothing to tell Mas’r,” he says. “Do you dare to tell me, ye old black Christian, ye don’t know” asks Legree. “I know, Mas’r, but I can’t tell anything. I can die.” And die he does.
To discover just how this literary figure of passive resistance becomes a byword for betrayal and subservience, we must look to theatre, film and politics. Stage adaptations removed any remotely radical anti-slave messages and turned it into a minstrel show. “Tom troupes” toured the country and characters sang songs like “I Am But A Little Nigger Gal” and “Happy Are We Darkies So Gay.” Tom provided the role for the first black film lead in 1914. Elsewhere, white actors occasionally blacked up. Those performing in film adaptations of the novel included Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Abbott and Costello — Felix the Cat even played Tom in an animated version.
By the second world war, Uncle Tom had become a byword for lickspittle subservience in the face of racial oppression. Richard Wright called his collection of short stories about black life in the American south Uncle Tom’s Children. The protagonist in his most renowned work, Native Son, is called Bigger Thomas — an eponymous northern descendant of Uncle Tom. James Baldwin lambasted Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “It was [Stowe’s] object to show that the evils of slavery were the inherent evils of a bad system, and not always the fault of those who had become involved in it and were its actual administrators.” The oldest and most moderate civil rights organisation in America, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, tried to proscribe the book and ban its dramatisations.
The fictitious Tom’s actual attributes and flaws soon became incidental. Black America had another use for him in real life. He was to represent the lackey, the moderate, the conciliator and the sell-out. If Stowe had not invented him, African-Americans would have had to. True he might not have been called Tom. It could have been Uncle Ben of long-grain rice fame (Tom’s female counterpart is Aunt Jemima, the grand matron of pancake mix). Black radical Malcolm X once said: “Just as the slavemaster in that day used Uncle Tom to keep the field negroes in check, he was the same old slavemaster who today has negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms — 20th-century Uncle Toms — to keep you and me in check.” But the truth is it was the term “Uncle Tom” itself that was really designed to keep black people in check. As a defensive response to racism, those who use it seek to enforce allegiance and cast out dissent purely on grounds of race.
Black people are not alone in this desire to police their borders in this way. Many cultures that feel on some level embattled will attempt to proscribe behaviour deemed equal to betrayal. That is how Zionist Jews get to brand anti-Zionist Jews “self- haters” – “They’re people of Jewish extraction who’ve had most of the Jewishness extracted,” one academic explained to me recently. Similarly, those not deemed to be sufficiently Irish become “West Brits.”
Malcolm X was not talking about Uncle Tom the character, but Uncle Tom the construct. The Tom of the novel had preferred to die than oversee his fellow slaves. But to Malcolm X, and many others before and since, Uncle Tom was the man preaching reform when others were preaching revolution; the one who advocated peace instead of war; the person who urged others to stay at home instead of taking to the streets; the leader who preached racial equality instead of Black Power.
In short, Uncle Tom is whoever you want him to be. Arbitrary in application — who decides who is an Uncle Tom and on what basis? — and prohibitive in nature, it exemplifies the very limits of race-thinking. Even though it is an insult that falls most readily from the lips of self-avowed radicals, it is in fact a reactionary form of psychological and behavioural racial policing within black communities.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the American Directory of Certified Uncle Toms, released in 2002. The book comes with the subtitle: “Being a review of the history, antics and attitudes of handkerchief heads, Aunt Jemimas, head negroes in charge and house negroes against the freedom of the black race.” It was published by the self-appointed “Council on Black Internal Affairs” which was set up after the Million Man March and cast itself as the supreme arbiter of black authenticity. The council set the lofty target of “[monitoring] the progress of the black race toward its inevitable freedom.” The book, wittily written as it is, remains a landmark document in the history of internal race regulation.
It ranks over 50 black leaders, past and present, according to a five-star Uncle Tom rating, with five being the worst. Michael Jackson, who has had plastic surgery which left many of his black features destroyed, gets one star; Bayard Rustin, the gay activist who organised the march on Washington at which King made his “I have a dream speech,” gets five; WEB Dubois, a pioneer of Pan-Africanism who died in Ghana publishing an Encyclopedia Africana, is also, according to the authors, a five-star Uncle Tom.
Colin Powell (five stars) becomes; “an official, government issue Uncle Tom”, Maya Angelou (two stars) is “the much glorified but innocuous negro emissary of ebony culture,” and Oprah Winfrey (four stars) is “the best unambiguously black ambassador of plantation placidity since Hattie McDaniel gushed over Scarlett in Gone With the Wind.” You do not have to like these people to find these assessments obnoxious. Like the insults “coconut”, “Bounty bar” and their American equivalent “Oreo” — all of which mean black on the outside and white on the inside — the racial determinism on which these insults are hinged is in the very worst tradition of identity politics.
The book promises not only constant vigilance — “More will be nominated. More will be exposed. More will be certified,” — but also redemption: “Only by refashioning his mind and recasting his role in black affairs can the Uncle Tom declare himself to be a friend of his own black race.”
In so doing it presents race not as a starting point from which to understand the world from your own experience, but the sole prism through which the world should be viewed and understood. It emphasises not what you do but who you are. As such it is, effectively, a de-blacking — an attempt to deny racial legitimacy as well as the possibility of genuine debate and disagreement among black people.
If US supreme court justice Clarence Thomas keeps voting against the interests of African-Americans then say that. If you think that in the UK the Voice editor, Mike Best, has contributed to a culture that could lead to more widespread harassment of black youth with his comments over stop and search, then say that too. Blame them for being overly ambitious, rightwing, misled, misguided, bankrupt or washed up. Blame those who back them for being patronising, cynical, opportunistic, manipulative or disingenuous. Call them what you want. Blame them for what they have done, not who they are. But whatever you do, don’t blame Uncle Tom. He has suffered enough.
Excerpt from the Stowe novel — Uncle Tom stands up to Simon Legree
“And now,” said Legree, “come here, you Tom. You see, I telled ye I didn’t buy ye jest for the common work; I mean to promote ye, and make a driver of ye; and to-night ye may jest as well begin to get yer hand in. Now, ye jest take this yer gal and flog her; ye’ve seen enough on’t to know how.”
“I beg Mas’r’s pardon,” said Tom; “hopes Mas’r won’t set me at that. It’s what I an’t used to, never did, and can’t do, no way possible.”
“‘Ye’ll larn a pretty smart chance of things ye never did know, before I’ve done with ye!” said Legree, taking up a cowhide, and striking Tom a heavy blow cross the cheek, and following up the infliction by a shower of blows.
“There!” he said, as he stopped to rest; “now, will ye tell me ye can’t do it?”
“Yes, Mas’r,” said Tom, putting up his hand, to wipe the blood, that trickled down his face. “I’m willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breath in me; but this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do; and, Mas’r, I never shall do it, never!”
Tom had a remarkably smooth, soft voice, and a habitually respectful manner, that had given Legree an idea that he would be cowardly, and easily subdued. When he spoke these last words, a thrill of amazement went through every one; the poor woman clasped her hands, and said, “O Lord!” and every one involuntarily looked at each other and drew in their breath, as if to prepare for the storm that was about to burst.
Legree looked stupefied and confounded; but at last burst forth, “What! ye blasted black beast! tell me ye don’t think it right to do what I tell ye! What have any of you cussed cattle to do with thinking what’s right? I’ll put a stop to it! Why, what do ye think ye are? May be ye think yer a gentleman master, Tom, to be a telling your master what’s right, and what ain’t! So you pretend it’s wrong to flog the gal!”
“I think so, Mas’r,” said Tom; “‘the poor crittur’s sick and feeble; ‘t would be downright cruel, and it’s what I never will do, nor begin to. Mas’r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but, as to my raising my hand agin any one here, I never shall, I’ll die first!”
Tom spoke in a mild voice, but with a decision that could not be mistaken. Legree shook with anger …
“Well, here’s a pious dog, at last, let down among us sinners! — a saint, a gentleman, and no less, to talk to us sinners about our sins! Powerful holy critter, he must be! 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 said, giving Tom a violent kick with his heavy boot; “tell me!”
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!”
“I can’t!” said Legree, with a sneer; “we’ll see, we’ll see!”
A longer version of this article appeared in The Guardian, March 30, 2002. Reprinted with permission.
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