Rethinking Uncle Tom

Uncle Tom Uncle Tom is possibly the most maligned literary figure in the history of the African-American community. When one wants to insult or question the “blackness” of another, the term “Uncle Tom” is often thrust upon them. It has become synonymous with being a “sellout” or an enemy to the collective struggle of African-Americans. To be too endearing or accepting of European culture gets one branded an Uncle Tom. However, who was Uncle Tom really? When Harriet Beecher Stowe penned the classic novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1852, Tom the central figure,  was received very differently. Tom is criticized today because of his perceived loyalty to a brutal slave master. How could one be loyal to and love someone who not only owns you but brutalised you as well? Tom’s surface level docility has become fodder for today’s pseudo-revolutionaries. However, Tom’s agreeable nature is not rooted in a blind love for his tormentor. Toms love for his master is based on his understanding and acceptance of his Christian faith. This is the critical point that many African-Americans today forget/ignore. Tom was a devout Christian with a wife and children he loved very much. He was a large muscular man who was well aware of the evils of slavery. Good Ole Uncle Tom was anything but a sellout. A sell-out will place members of their own community in harm’s way for personal gain. In the novel, Tom is punished for refusing to whip another slave. He is also severely beaten for not disclosing the location of two run away slaves. Are these the actions of a sell out? Are these the acts of a man in different to the struggles of his people? I cry Shenanigans! These if anything are revolutionary acts! When Tom is ultimately beaten to death for protecting runaways, he uses his final moments to plead for the soul of his slave master. As a Christian, he knew the bible commanded him to “Love thine enemy”. This was precisely what he did. Tom’s devotion was to God not his master. His loyalty was to the word of God not the word of man. Alas, I hear his adversaries crying out, “Why didn’t he run away? He must love his master!” Well the answer is simple. Tom knew that by running away he would endanger all that were left behind on the plantation. If a slave ran away it was not uncommon for harsh punishments to be carried out on those left behind. In the end, Tom is beaten to death for encouraging two slaves(who were both used as sex slaves) to escape. Drawing his final breath, he forgives the slave master and overseers. Tom’s actions are so harrowing that one of his former owners upon seeing him die a martyr’s death emancipates all of his slaves. Tom’s act of forgiveness reminds me of the words Christ spoke on the cross, “Forgive them father for they know not what they do.” Uncle Tom’s cabin was vehemently protested all across the south for its scathing depiction of slavery. Southerners did not want Tom’s martyrdom to extend beyond the pages of the book. However, at the same time southerners protested the book, northern blacks became incensed about the passive nature of Tom. Given the tumultuous state of early twentieth century race relations and the violence that often accompanied those relations, the idea of “agreeable” blacks did not sit well with many African-Americans. Instead of remembering Tom for his unselfish actions, he has become demonized as the willing servant of his master. The irony here is that southern whites feared Uncle Tom and northern blacks derailed him as not “black” enough. As a Christian, I admire Tom’s perseverance and faith. Though challenged his faith never broke. He knew who his enemy was and still chose love over hate. Perhaps with this understanding of who Uncle Tom really was, we as a community will stop using his name as a badge of shame. For there was nothing shameful about Ol’ Uncle Tom. If you really NEED a label for back-biting “sellouts”, I suggest referencing Malcolm X’s discussion on House vs. Field Negroes! Peace and blessings from Dathistoryguy!

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking Uncle Tom

  1. Pingback: The Story of Henry Addams | The Art of Polemics

  2. Pingback: Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States | James' reading list

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