From servant to seller: why the racial stereotype of “Uncle Tom” remains a political weapon

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In fact, the Uncle Tom stereotype is possibly the most resilient figure in American history. He has survived pandemics, lived through 33 presidents, and remains the most recognizable black figure in history. While most people know that Uncle Tom is the main character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, few people know how and why this literary character has transformed since his first appearance. Why is Uncle Tom still alive in the 21st century?

Uncle Tom from Stowe

The 19th century bestselling novel and the second bestselling book of this century – after the Bible, Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared in the United States in 1851 as a chapter-by-chapter serialized work of fiction in National Era, a weekly abolitionist newspaper edited by Gamaliel Bailey.

Today, we don’t necessarily believe that novels shape national identity. However, in 19th century America, Stowe’s view of Uncle Tom built a form of black manhood that left a deep mark on the nation. Although he was torn from his wife and children, shackled and sent to an enclosure with other male and female slaves, abandoned even by a “good master” and beaten, ultimately to death, Uncle Tom did not. never says anything bad about anyone. He is loyal, passive in the midst of white violence and dies a martyr.

Since then, various black men have been referred to as “Uncle Toms”. From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to former President Barack Obama, at one point they have been accused of being too passive or of selling on the run.

Legalized rights did not translate into reality

In the historic case of 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court ruled that African Americans have access to the legal system, equal to that of whites, but they must maintain separate institutions to facilitate these rights. The ruling institutionalized a racial hierarchy that put whites at the top and blacks at the bottom in almost every aspect of public life.

Living in North America meant choosing not only between racial loyalty and disloyalty, but also between life and death. Survival meant fulfilling subservient roles as uncles and grannies, in public or at work. In this environment, blacks were forced to acquiesce to the desire of the white public to perpetuate the servile relations of slavery. Black men and women who violated these Jim Crow standards risked their homes, jobs, and lives.

To survive in an environment of racial segregation, Pullman sleeping car carriers, for example, black men who worked on North American railroads, had to play the role of a servile Uncle Tom and were measured by compared to its image.

In Canada, the only reference for Uncle Tom is to the historic site of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The former home of Reverend Josiah Henson, who lived from 1789 to 1883, has been turned into a museum to showcase Henson’s life, as the founder of the Dawn Settlement in Dresden, Ontario, to runaway African Americans . Stowe’s novel was loosely based on Henson’s biography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada published in 1849. The museum documents Henson’s life but also reaffirms his connection to Uncle Tom de Stowe.

The insatiable appetite of North American white audiences for a docile and symbolically emasculated black male archetype, and the Uncle Tom controversies that follow them, speak volumes about this character’s monumental resistance to change.

From servant to sold

In the decades since the novel, Uncle Tom has evolved into a stereotype of black masculinity characterized by docility, castrated sexuality, a happy-to-please white attitude with a safe and childish essence, at the same time. . Shirley Temple’s blonde curls paired with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s soft shoe routine in their 1930s “Friends” films are an example of the cinematic repackaging of Stowe’s Uncle Tom and his child patron, Little Eva.

The servile Uncle Tom was reproduced in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales published in the 1880s, later adapted by Disney for Song of the South. Uncle Tom also became a star of the blackface minstrel shows known as “Tom shows”. He later became a spokesperson for commodities such as Rastus Cream of Wheat and Uncle Ben.

The sold-out Uncle Tom concept, however, is characterized by the idea of ​​a black man who seems only interested in serving whites, government, business, or “the system” in general. The insult is meant to indicate that these men, these “Uncle Toms” will ensure that the needs of white people come before the needs of the black community and themselves.

The men (or fictional male characters) who have been accused of being a sold-out Uncle Tom include the film roles of actors like Sidney Poitier and, later, Bill Cosby at the height of his glory in the movies. 70s and 80s, as did Christopher Darden during the OJ Simpson trial – not to mention OJ himself, and even athletes like Tiger Woods.

Black people hate him, but it also seems like we can’t live without him. The trope is particularly evoked when it comes to political figures. Some political careers have been marred by Uncle Tom’s accusations. This includes people like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and, more recently, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Foils for the social progress of blacks

The challenges facing contemporary black men in positions of authority, power and prestige who either serve white institutions or become public spokespersons for white businesses are very real.

The reason these black men are accused of Uncle Tomism is because communities suspect them of thwarting black social progress. It is a reliable trope invoked during times when a black individual is seen by the black community as slandering the race in order to gain favor with white authority and institutions.

Beyond politics, we are surrounded by images of black men who serve one purpose: to make the public (imagined as white) feel safe. They are only useful if they are clearly attached to the American way of life, that is, to the culture of consumption. From Uncle Remus out there to sell white childhood innocence, Uncle Ben to sell rice, and even the flawless image of Michael Jordan, this image of black masculinity has taken a firm hold on what it means to be a black man in North American society.

Why can’t Uncle Tom just fade from memory, like so many other characters in other mid-19th century novels? Stowe may have created this character to support the abolition of slavery. However, through constant reinvention and reproduction, Uncle Tom will continue to exist if the black community remains divided over how to live within a capitalist system built on slave labor.

Yet that number also reminds us to look deeper and ask tough questions about how we choose to relate to white society and its institutions. Uncle Tom will persist as long as the Anti-Darkness persists.


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