Some readers, however, felt that the character of Uncle Tom was submissive which, though contradictory to Stowe's characterization, led to the evolution of the term "Uncle Tom" into a racial pejorative which still plagues our society today.
The use of the slur appears in the Stowe Center's news alerts frequently. Last week, news broke that ESPN contributor Hugh Douglas was fired after allegedly calling co-host Michael Smith an "Uncle Tom." The story attracted national attention, including "Hugh Douglas Fired From ESPN After Allegedly Calling Cohost 'Uncle Tom'" in the Huffington Post. One news source, Uinterviews, even cited the connection to Stowe in "Hugh Douglas Leaves ESPN After Allegedly Calling Co-Host Michael Smith An ‘Uncle Tom’":
During the public altercation, Douglas allegedly hurled a number of offensive comments at Smith, including dubbing him an “Uncle Tom.” Incidentally, the slur is meant to refer to a black person who is servile to a white people or is seen to assimilate to white culture. It’s a reference to the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.Even though some sources explain the origins of "Uncle Tom" as being Uncle Tom' Cabin, they likewise prolong the misinterpretation of the book's leading character.
Regardless, in considering the term as a slur, the attention drawn to this story then begs the question - was the attention because of the use of "Uncle Tom," or because Douglas was fired from ESPN? And how do we work do combat this racism while also educating society that Uncle Tom is not in fact an "Uncle Tom"?
Last year, the Stowe Center debuted a new exhibit in our Visitor Center entitled "Who is Uncle Tom?" The exhibit explores the evolution of Stowe's title character in the public consciousness - from inspiration for the 19th-century's abolitionist movement to today's racial slur. It also features an interactive blackboard showcasing changing interpretations and definitions of "Uncle Tom" and news stories of the term's use today.
How do you define "Uncle Tom"? Who have you heard called an "Uncle Tom" recently? How will you work to end such examples of racism and hatred? If you haven't already, be sure to visit "Who is Uncle Tom?" a free exhibit in the Stowe Visitor Center and learn about this important cultural reference and its evolution. Share your thoughts on the board or in the comment section below this post!