Welcome to the conversation!

Welcome to the conversation!

Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.

The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Event Recap: Name-Calling and the Evolution of Uncle Tom

What does it mean to be an Uncle Tom? How has the image of Stowe's Christ-like figure turned into a sell-out?

Opening Remarks

Adena Spingarn: PhD. candidate at Harvard University. Currently writing her doctoral dissertation titled: Uncle Tom in the American Imagination: A Cultural Biography.
  • There is a strange history of Uncle Tom. Tom really isn't an "Uncle Tom" as many know the term to be. He isn't a race traitor; he is submissive to God more than his master.
  • There have been so many uses of "Uncle Tom" in pop culture including: 30 Rock, rap music, The Simpsons, The Little Rascals, and more.
  • The term has become part of what it means to be black.
  • We are still talking about him. There is no other character in literature that has the resonance.
  • Readers, black and white, praise him in the 19th century
  • Three things have changed our perceptions:
    • What does it mean to be a man? (Different in 19th century than 20th century. Ideals for masculinity have changed. He's less appealing in 20th century.)
    • The way we talk about slavery and the Southern nostalgia for the past. As a nation, it was much easier to accept and retell the story of enslaved people living as part of their master's family.
    • Growing black political movement that needs to respond to reconstruction. (New Negro needs to put down an old Negro. It's a part of the black protest movement. They want to change the image of black culture)
Jeffrey Ogbar: Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean for the Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Connecticut
  • Differences in adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin: Novel constructs someone who is anti-slavery. Plays show him quivering to his master.
  • In William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator a letter to the editor in 1852 asks what Harriet Beecher Stowe thought of the resistance by the white man? Does Christ justify the whites to take up arms and does Christ expect blacks to wait patiently and be submissive?
  • Malcolm X called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. an "Uncle Tom"; claiming he led black men to be defenseless.
  • Chicano community used "Uncle Tom": "Tio Taco" (Uncle Taco). Asian-Americans used it as well. There was also Uncle Charlie and Uncle Roy. The term evolved.
  • Jalen Rose played basketball for University of Michigan. In a documentary, which aired on ESPN on March 8, 2011, he says that rival Duke University "only recruited black players that were 'Uncle Tom's'."
  • Muhammad Ali used the term. Sugar Ray Robinson was an old school Negro; Ali calls him as "Uncle Tom". Also calls Joe Frazier and George Foreman "Uncle Tom".
  • In Hip Hop, Ice Cube uses "Uncle Tom" as a sell-out in "True to the Game". 
  • Uncle Tom is one of the most offensive words black people can use against other black folks. 
Group Discussion:
Does the evolution of Uncle Tom have something to do with ageism?
  • The popular image is that Uncle Tom was an old man; in the book he's a young, strong man.
  • A variety of editions of  Uncle Tom's Cabin were published with Tom as an old man.
  • Image of the older generation being weaker, which fit the derogatory "Uncle Tom" figure.
  • The term was political for students in the 20th century, not necessarily age. Young folks were also called "Uncle Toms".
How was it used outside of the novel?
  • In the 20th century the name was given to African Americans from outside the community, not inside. There was an image of a black person as hostile and violent. There was also an image of a black person being passive. It depended on the propaganda.
  • Term "Uncle" and "Aunt" were used to offer some deferential title for older slaves. They are "part of our family". These terms are still a mark of great respect in some parts of the world.
  • In the 1930s, Aunt Jemima was the most popular black woman. Uncle Ben follows in this tradition in the 1940s. They bring a nostalgia to slavery. It was easier for the nation to agree on this happy image, rather than talk about what slavery was really about.
  • Uncle Remus is a reworking of the "Uncle Tom" figure. He is part of the nostalgia.
    • He was a non-threatening image of slavery
    • The difference many saw was the Uncle Remus wasn't a sell-out
    • Others saw the character as demeaning
When does Uncle Tom take on the image of a sell-out?
  • Seems to being around 1883, but in the teens is when it became derogatory.
  • In 1910, the newspaper The Chicago Defender, published an article that said migrants (from the Great Migration) should go back to the South where the "Uncle Toms" and "Topsys" belong.
How has "Uncle Tom" been used in pop culture and entertainment?
  • Many know what "Uncle Tom" means, but they haven't read the book Uncle Tom's Cabin
  • Many teachers shy away from teaching the book because of stereotypes. As the character of Uncle Tom became a bad guy people began to put the book away.
  • Kids use the term because they hear it in popular culture. It begins to have less meaning.
  • Uncle Tom's image changed through entertainment. The silly dancing that black people were doing in entertainment was more acceptable.
  • There were extremely racist versions and dignified versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. There have always been varieties. Categorically minstrel shows with whites using blackface.
What other factors caused "Uncle Tom" to be derogatory?
  • Immigration and fear. People are afraid to share; if you share there won't be enough for you.
  • This feeling that, "I haven't defined why I'm important, so I'll put you down to define why I exist."
  • So much is based on economics. Immigration, slavery, both are based on economics.
  • When black people speak more educated it's looked down upon. You can be seen as a "wannabe" which can be a modern day "Uncle Tom".
What was the female equivalent?
  • Mammy was a female equivalent.
  • Females could also be called "Uncle Tom". Anyone who was undermining he cause could be an "Uncle Tom".
Is there an international use of the term "Uncle Tom"?
  • He is a symbol of resistance. He's used for a radical, political movement outside the U.S.
  • "Uncle Tom" is associated with the original character.
How do we teach this stereotyping and overcoming the stereotype of "Uncle Tom," especially when some see violence as the only way to resist?
  • You want to inspire children and people are inspired by different things. Sometimes it's naysayers that inspire, but that doesn't work for everybody. We need nurturing.
  • Don't hold back from talking about the hard stuff.
Inspiration to Action Items:
  • Read Uncle Tom's Cabin to understand the real image
  • Nurture and inspire children
  • Talk about the tough stuff

1 comment:

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