What if Uncle Tom was not an Uncle Tom? What if the derogatory connotation was born not only after the novel (1852), but even after the end of slavery?
We look at the world through lenses we know to be true — but maybe they’re not. We assume that powerful terms have always had the same meaning as they do now — but maybe they don’t. We equate history with stasis — Uncle Tom is derogatory because it’s always been derogatory — but maybe it hasn’t.
Recent research suggests that the classic definition of Uncle Tom is not classic. Here is how Wikipedia defines Uncle Tom: “a derogatory epithet for an exceedingly subservient person, particularly when that person is aware of their [sic] own lower-class status, based on race.”
Where else would that definition come from if not the novel by that name, Uncle Tom’s Cabin? This was the influential, abolitionist tract by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is one of the most influential books in American history. How, then, could its character, Uncle Tom, mean anything other than what Wikipedia says?
Adena Spingarn has written Uncle Tom: From Martyr to Traitor, published by Stanford University Press in 2018. In a nutshell, her thesis is this:
“Uncle Tom” the insult is not in the book. It’s a later invention that the book’s author would not recognize.
Terms have “parentage,” as the late professor of philosophy, Harry A. Wolfson, put it. Applied to “Uncle Tom,” the parentage metaphor yields a bastard, an illegitimate offspring of the actual character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As summarized by Douglas A. Jones, Jr. of Rutgers, the Uncle Tom of the novel itself was not a race traitor. Rather:
“‘Uncle Tom’ the insult and Uncle Tom the character [in the novel] do not really align: Uncle Tom encourages other slaves in their runaway schemes, but he withholds from his master their plans or whereabouts; he demurs from running away himself because the remaining slaves would have to bear the (financial) brunt of his flight; he refuses to whip fellow slaves; and he declares that he would rather live in the most abject conditions as a free person than in the most luxurious ones as a slave.”
This is not the Uncle Tom we know in common usage. What happened to this decent if fictional pre-Civil War black man? This is the burden of Adena Spingarn’s book, reviewed by Douglas Jones, Jr. in the current edition of the American Historical Review.
Spingarn traces the parentage of Uncle Tom the insult in film, theater and literature. I have not read her book. As I understand it from the review, opposition to slavery was able to acquire an independent life of its own after slavery ended through opposition to the theatrical and screen versions of the novel.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of course, contributed heavily to sentiment against slavery. However, as in Newtonian physics, it also generated an opposite and equal reaction: the manufacture of the myth that slavery was the best possible relationship between the races, a very kind and tender mutual devotion. This view came to expression after the Civil War in opposition to productions of the novel.
Why were there productions? After all, slavery was over. However, the conditions of the black race, after a brief period of affirmative Reconstruction, fell to Jim Crow. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin once constituted an argument against slavery, it now constituted an argument against Jim Crow.
So much so that in 1906 Kentucky passed a law banning “any play that is based on antagonism alleged formerly to exist, between master and slave, or that excites race prejudice.” Of course, “race prejudice” meant the expression of opposition to Jim Crow.
In other words, Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s first afterlife sustained its original intent, all shades of difference between the novel and its theatrical and screen versions notwithstanding.
But then things changed, ironically due to opposition to Uncle Tom’s Cabin not from racism, but from within the black community itself.
Again, I quote Rutgers:
“With the wide-ranging demographic changes brought about by the Great Migration [of blacks from the South to the North]; with greater economic and educational opportunities for African Americans, particularly in and around northern and midwestern cities; with black valor during World War I; and with the formation of new ideologies . . . that rejected early programs of racial uplift . . . the ‘Old Negro’ of slavery days and all that he stood for become anathema to the modernist enterprises and sensibilities that dominated black culture and politics.
“As the most conspicuous ‘Old Negro’ in American culture, Uncle Tom became the icon of everything the black moderns . . . spurned; he thus emerged ‘in black political rhetoric as an old-fashioned man whose submissive mentality seriously jeopardized racial progress.’”
From the 1910s on, “Uncle Tom” gradually acquired its current meaning: race traitor.
We have here a winding parentage that leaves those who might invoke “Uncle Tom” today utterly at odds with the authoress who created the character by that name.
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