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.

The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

ESPN fires contributor Hugh Douglas for calling cohost an "Uncle Tom"

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is controversial today just as it was in 1852. Harriet Beecher Stowe intended the book to demonstrate that the institution of slavery dehumanized everyone: those who practiced it, those who supported it, those who tried to ignore it, and those who lived under its yoke. In shaping her characters, she gave Uncle Tom all the qualities and virtues that she admired and wanted to celebrate: strength of character, devotion to family, and, above all, religious faith. Religion formed an essential part of Stowe’s life, and she described how Tom’s faith is constantly tested as he faces hardship, pain, danger, and death. He has been called a Christ-like figure. Tom ultimately sacrifices his life in order to save the lives of others, and forgives his persecutor.

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!

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