Wednesday, April 02, 2008

When did Uncle Tom become "Uncle Tom"?

(Pictured above: Josiah Henson, the "inspiration" for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. He was born a slave on June 15, 189 in Charles County Maryland. He was sold three times before he was eighteen. By 1830, he had saved $350 dollars to purchase his freedom. His master told him the price for freedom was now $1000 and so he self-emancipated with his family and moved to Canada where he taught former bonded persons how to be successful in agriculture. His autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, was read by Stowe and thus the inspiration for the Uncle Tom character.)

Many are familiar with the the derogatory meaning within African American culture of "Uncle Tom." Typically this label is given to self-hating and self-denigrating blacks who seek the affirmation and benevolent praise of normative white society at their own expense, and the expense of the race. Extreme examples of such behavior can be found in the slaves who betrayed the insurrections of Gabriel or Denmark Vesey, or in a more contemporary context, Justice Clarence Thomas fits the bill for all practical purposes (as well as Ward Connerly, and several others).

Regardless, the character "Uncle Tom" in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin was anything but self deprecating. Actually he sacrifices himself for the sake of other slaves. Moreover, his uncompromising Christian beliefs in the face of brutal treatment made him a hero to white audiences. For them, he was the personification of Christian humility.

Tom's tormenter in the book, the brutal and savage Simon Legree, the Northern slave-dealer turned plantation owner, enraged white readers with his cruelty in stark contrast. Stowe convinced her readers that the peculiar institution of slavery was evil, because it supported people like Legree and enslaved people like Uncle Tom. Her book in its own way brought more whites to the cause of anti-slavery, but not to abolition. You must remember that "anti-slavery" not the same thing as abolition.

Now at the time of publication, in 1852, there existed a small number of persons in the United States who were literate. Of the that literate populous, one would need to interrogate the critical mass of transplanted Africans and free people of color who could read. Frederick Doulgass, the noted abolitionist and patriot, praised the book in his writings. He also was a friend of Stowe's who she consulted on portions of the text. There were those who found the novel condescending not just with the passiveness of Uncle Tom, but also the fact that the characters in Stowe's novel emigrate to Africa, they are never able to live in America. Again anti-slavery does not equal abolition.

So the question remains, just when did Uncle Tom become a bad thing to be? I can see the negative aspects of him being labeled weak and socially impotent in the face of oppression, but I seriously doubt that either Thomas or Connerly would have the intestinal fortitude to sacrifice themselves for the cause of freedom.


Luciferatu said...

Justice Thomas is "self-hating and self-denigrating?" That's kind of harsh. Conservative? No doubt. Self-hating? I haven't seen any evidence of that. Yes he sees affirmative action as not being necessary or beneficial for the advancement of black people. And you can agree with him on that or not. But the fact of the matter is that some people will point to the existence of preferential treatment based on skin color and call it "racist." I think there is also a colorable argument to be made that black achievements helped along by affirmative action policies are subject to being diminished as being somehow "less than" accomplishments of others without the benefit of receiving certain advantages based on the color of their skin. Yeah, yeah I know that the disadvantages of slavery, Jim Crow and covert racist policies still impede black progress and affirmative action may or may not be the best way to deal with that. But calling someone who advocates against affirmative action "self-hating" is going too far. To the contrary I'm sure Justice Thomas would tell you that he's proud of himself and his black heritage, and I for one believe him. What evidence do you have to the contrary?

The Uppity Negro said...

I think the argument for Clarence Thomas exists for his "self-hating" status because he has quipped more than once that he doesn't post his own Yale degree because he's convinced himself that he got in Yale because of affirmative action.

I think the link between hating your own accomplishments, as a result of your perception that someone allowed you to achieve those accomplishments on the basis of your race SCREAMS of self-hatred and self deprication. It seems to me that he wished either a) that he was white, which would therefore justify his achievements or b) that because of his blackness (outside of the ontological understanding of "to be black") he's not worthy of his accomplishments.

But much of what Clarence Thomas aruges in favor of is mere high rhetoric. If he's so against affirmative action, and so pro-conservative values then perhaps he should step down from his position. But given his history, I doubt we need to worry about that ever happening.

I just wonder what black neo-conservative they're gonna find when he finally kicks the bucket.

Luciferatu said...

I had never heard that Thomas hides his Yale degree before. But if he did get into Yale on affirmative action basis (which if he thinks so, who are we to say otherwise?), then given his views on affirmative action that would certainly help explain why he doesn't feel the need to boast about is diploma. Look at it this way: let's say you played some one-on-one with Kobe Bryant and his rim was at a regulation 10 feet, but yours was at 6 feet. Now, let's say you won the game. Would you go around bragging about beating Kobe? And even if you did have low enough self-esteem to make a big deal out of winning the game, wouldn't you feel the least twinge of shame knowing that the odds were so stacked in your favor?

My guess is that Justice Thomas likely feels he is every bit as smart as the whites he studied with and that he has what it takes to succeed in school and in life without the affirmative action crutch. The problem is that he never got the chance to prove it. Now no matter what he accomplishes in his professional life there’ll always be someone who can (perhaps truthfully) discount his success by pointing out that he got a boost up from affirmative action policies. To someone who truly embraces classical conservative values I can see how Justice Thomas could look back at the booster chair he was given with a degree of shame and embarrassment. But, unlike you, I would not characterize that shame as “self-hating.” You accuse him of hating himself for allegedly not displaying his Yale degree, but suggest that he should hate himself even more by giving up his career. I agree there is a hater in the room, but it ain’t Clarence Thomas.

The Uppity Negro said...

I don't equate him hating himself with giving up his career. It just poses a contradiction for me. I think the basketball analogy is flawed because, the issue is entry into certain venues. I'm equally as qualified as the people who I'm competing against, but because of the school or zip code that's listed on my application one can tell that I'm African American. Because of affirmative action I would be able to go to Yale. The metaphorical match against Kobe would, or rather should, be played on an equal playing field with baskets at the same height.

I think that's the misconception of affirmative action and quota problems. I'd go out on the limb and say that he had just as many problems as a student at Yale as the averages student at any institution of higher learning. And if I can take liberty based on my own experiences at Vanderbilt Univ. in a particular grad level course, he probably had more issues because of his racial status.

The fact that he sucessfully completed Yale gives credence to his own abilities to triumph through diversity. Now whether or not he chooses to realize it is up to him: perception IS reality. I'm not hatin' on his acheivements, but rather am just critiquing what I see as an individual who has some self-hating qualities about himself.

negrointellectual said...

"Today's Uncle Tom doesn't wear a handkerchief on his head. This modern, twentieth-century Uncle Thomas now often wears a top hat. He's usually well- dressed and well-educated. He's often the personification of culture and refinement. The twentieth-century Uncle Thomas sometimes speaks with a Yale or Harvard accent. Sometimes he is known as Professor, Doctor, Judge, and Reverend, even Right Reverend Doctor. This twentieth-century Uncle Thomas is a professional that I mean his profession is being a Negro for the white man."

- Malcolm X, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," 1964

First let me say that I appreciate the responses about my post. This has been a question that has been on my mind for some time (and still is). I enjoy intellectual engagement, but to be short about this (for the time being) my use of Thomas, Connerly, and several others who I did not mention, is that in contemporary society most black folk would label Thomas and those like him as "Toms". My goal with the post was to engage the label of Uncle Tom and how it became so negative. But, sometimes tangents are needed to address segments of an argument that one may find unreasonable or confusing. Here, "Luciferatu" you do not see Thomas as the "Tom" he is often acknowledged as.

I must tell you that I agree with "The Uppity Negro's" assessment. I think "Luciferatu" you don't give self-hatred enough credit. It is real and entrenched just like the racism that created it, often times working subconsciously.

But to respond to the critique of my critique...if Thomas is NOT the self-deprecating twenty-first century Tom, and if affirmative action is indeed wrong, then he needs to leave his position...walk away from the bench because it was attained while he was shooting on a "six-foot rim."

Constructive Feedback said...

[quote]Extreme examples of such behavior can be found in the slaves who betrayed the insurrections of Gabriel or Denmark Vesey, or in a more contemporary context, Justice Clarence Thomas fits the bill for all practical purposes (as well as Ward Connerly, and several others).[/quote]

Two examples - both Black Conservatives.

Mr Intellectual - do you ever think to buffer your views on these two Black men by placing them into the PROPORTION of other Black people who don't think as they do and then upon reviewing the small "threat" that they pose question the very basis as to why they appear so frequently on the minds and transcripts of highly intelligent Black people like yourself?

Does Clarence Thomas hate himself more than the Black man who shoots another in the face with a handgun on the streets of the inner cities?

Does Clarence Thomas preside over any of these cities? If he cannot be elected to even "dog catcher" via the popular vote in many of these cities - who then DO we hold accountable for the conditions that are rampant within?

I am attempting to figure out WHAT is soothed within the soul of the Black Quasi-Socialist Progressive-Fundamentalist Racism-Chaser when the disproportionate attack is waged upon these Black men WHO DON'T THINK LIKE YOU THINK THEY SHOULD THINK yet disproportionate SILENCE is heard regarding the effective works of the "Negroes in Good standing" that actually have ELECTIVE POWER via the popular vote that they have won to preside over your interests?

claymonster said...

I read this post after a search regarding the exact question of the title.
I'm intrigued that even a self-professed intellectual equates success with self-hatred or, by implication, "not being in touch with ones blackness".
Why is every conservative black considered and "Uncle Tom"? Where is it written or proven that you must present yourself as a victim, dependent upon some sort of government program to alleviate your suffering? Black politicians can only earn the votes of "the voting bloc" of blacks (another subject altogether) if they are "the right kind" of black: Victicrat. A conservative black, one who thinks government should retract the insidiuos hooks of mother-state dependence, is immediately dismissed as an "Uncle Tom". Why? This question remains unanswered. Thinking that individuals, not groups or politial blocs, should make their own way through hard work and perseverance is a highly prized trait among most. Why is it different for blacks? I realize there is a history of institutional racism in this country and there are indeed remnants. But the constant knocking down of any black who achieves a high level of status and commits the sin of self-reliance rather than victimhood is (I believe) a harmful tactic that only serves to artificially inflate the severity of "the struggle". Surely most of society's blacks have seen through the self-serving hyperbole of the likes of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson... but at the same time they seem to dismiss someone like Ward Connerly or Clarence Thomas as somehow "not black" -- it makes no sense. Considering the conservative, Christian environment among the purported majority of black households, I still scratch my head at the rejection of political conservatism and outright hatred for blacks who dare stray from the plantation.

achoiceofweapons said...

If I am correct and please correct me if I am not but Uncle Tom was not the Sellout but Sambo was. So why are we continually calling someone an Uncle Tom or interchangablly using the term along with Sambo?

Ms B. =) said...

when you systematically go against anything that could be used for the upliftment of your people using the cloak of "conservatism" than by golly you fall in the category of a self-hating, self-denigrating individual!
and if you'd like some more current examples of
'Uncle Toms' lets say 2005-2008 here's a little help

Robert 'Bob' Johnson
Alan Keyes
Juan Willams
and I'll just throw in one of my favorite pundits for debate sake Amy Holmes

Luciferatu said...

I decided a while back to leave this post alone and just file it under the "agree to disagree" compartment. But, OK I'll dive in again...

"negrointellectual" said I "don't give self-hatred enough credit. It is real and entrenched just like the racism that created it, often times working subconsciously." Just to clarify I am a whole-hearted believer in black self-hatred. I also agree that it was created and fostered by white supremacist racism. Where we disagree is that I attribute self-hatred less to hard-working and successful professionals like those labeled with it in this post, and more to blacks who seem to go out of their way to prove to white supremacists that they're right about us. Oh, say, like blacks who claim that we cannot succeed with out crutches like affirmative action, welfare, etc. Or, those of us who get over by exploiting and reinforcing negative black stereotypes (especially rappers who popularize referring to black men as "niggas" and black women as "bitches" and "hoes" and who glorify street crime and "thug life" as the only way for "real niggas" to "get over".) THAT is my idea of self-hatred. If Clarence Thomas is a "self-hater" then please pin that label on me too, and I'll wear it proudly.

10thCavSoldier said...

In response to the original question, I would guess the term "Uncle Tom" became a popular synonym for a black person who betrays blacks and black equality to curry favor with whites during the civil rights era. Although this is probably not provable, I would wager that the term "Uncle Tom" was not used the way it popularly is today until the late 50s. I think originally the term was probably used pejoratively to denote a black person that is obsequiant to white folks and is not assertive about their (and other black people's) rights and equality with whites, rather than a term that meant one actively worked against the equality of blacks, ie a "sell-out." I imagine it was similar to the terms "boot-black" or "step-and-fetch-it". However, with the emergence of the black consciousness and civil rights movements many writers and activists rhetorically conflated the idea of being servile to whites and being a race-traitor.
With regards to the debate over Justice Thomas and Ward Connerly, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but would encourage people to listen to NPR's debate over whether it is time to end Affirmitive Action. Although I think Affirmative Action policies are probably still useful in certain areas, the arguments made for ending AA raise some fundamental, and often overlooked issues, about what AA policies imply about the increasing number of minorities who have come from privileged backgrounds and their ability to compete head-to-head with whites. As greater numbers of African Americans reach higer levels of educationa and affluence, the effectiveness of decreasing wide disparities with simple racial set-asides becomes increasingly questionable.

Anonymous said...

From the Wikipedia page:

The term "Uncle Tom" is used as a derogatory epithet for an excessively subservient person, particularly when that person perceives their own lower-class status based on race. It is similarly used to negatively describe a person who betrays their own group by participating in its oppression, whether or not they do so willingly.[1][2]

The popular negative connotation of "Uncle Tom" has largely been attributed to numerous derivative works inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin in the decade after its release, rather than the original novel itself, whose title character is a more positive figure.[3] These works lampooned and distorted the portrayal of Uncle Tom with politically loaded overtones.[5]


American copyright law before 1856 did not give novel authors any control over derivative stage adaptations, so Stowe neither approved the adaptations nor profited from them.[12] Minstrel show retellings in particular, usually performed by white men in blackface, tended to be derisive and pro-slavery, transforming Uncle Tom from Christian martyr to a fool or an apologist for slavery.[5]

Adapted theatrical performances of the novel remained in continual production in the United States for at least 80 years.[12] These representations had a lasting cultural impact and influenced the pejorative nature of the term Uncle Tom in later popular use.[5]

Although not all minstrel depictions of Uncle Tom were negative, the dominant version developed into a stock character very different from Stowe's hero.[5][13] Stowe's Uncle Tom was a muscular and virile man who refused to obey when ordered to beat other slaves; the stock character of minstrel shows became a shuffling asexual individual with a receding hairline and graying hair.[13] To Jo-Ann Morgan, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin as Visual Culture, these shifting representations undermined the subversive layers of Stowe's original characterization by redefining Uncle Tom until he fit within prevailing racist norms.[12] Particularly after the Civil War, as the political thrust of the novel which had arguably helped to precipitate that war became obsolete to actual political discourse, popular depictions of the title character recast him within the apologetics of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.[12] The virile father of the abolitionist serial and first book edition degenerated into a decrepit old man, and with that transformation the character lost the capacity for resistance that had originally given meaning to his choices.[12][13] Stowe never meant Uncle Tom to be a derided name, but the term as a pejorative has developed based on how later versions of the character, stripped of his strength, were depicted on stage.[14]

Claire Parfait, author of The Publishing History of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852–2002, opines that "the many alterations in retellings of the Uncle Tom story demonstrate an impulse to correct the retellers' perceptions of its flaws and "the capacity of the novel to irritate and rankle, even a century and a half after its first publication."[4]

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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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