The Strange Career Uncle Tom
On the 150th anniversary of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, scholars reflect on the legacy of the groundbreaking novel and its author Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom. It’s one of the most inflammatory racial insults that a Black person can offer another. Not quite as powerful, or as controversial, as the “n” word, the term still packs a powerful punch of contempt. But once upon a time in the 19th century, someone who had been called an Uncle Tom would not have been insulted — he would have taken it as a compliment of the highest order.
“Uncle Tom is a guy with a bad image problem,” says Robert Alexander, whose 1990 play, “I Ain’t Yo Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” is a humorous send-up of the novel’s stereotypes.
And scholars tend to agree. “People don’t realize that when they call someone like (Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas an ‘Uncle Tom,’ that really is an insult to Uncle Tom,” says Dr. Patricia Turner, a professor of African American studies at the University of California-Davis who’s done path-breaking work on stereotypes in mass consumer culture.
In the novel that everybody knows but few have actually read, Uncle Tom is, in fact, a heroic figure. “He dies rather than reveal (to Simon Legree) the whereabouts of two escaped slaves who have been sexually abused. In the African American community, we really haven’t understood that,” Turner says.
But in this sesquicentennial year of Uncle Tom, scholars are working hard to clarify the public’s understanding of this controversial figure.
At the University of Virginia, for example, Dr. Steven Railton is putting the finishing touches on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture” <http://jefferson.village.-virginia.edu/utc/>, an award-winning Web archive that’s one of the richest cyberspace collections of original source material normally available only to scholars.
At the University of California-Berkeley, Dr. Linda Williams, a professor of film studies, has been making headlines with her provocative new book, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson.
There has even been a renewal of interest among doctoral candidates. Ayoade “Joy” Asekun of the University of Virginia is a young scholar who’s giving Stowe’s much-maligned book a second look.
Asekun says she’s fascinated “not just by the African American cultural understanding (of Uncle Tom), but even more so by the way in which that text becomes a foundational work in the formation of the African American canon.”
African American novelists begin revisiting and revising Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 19th century, and keep working and reworking aspects of the story and characterization all the way through Beloved (1987), as well as in plays and even dance, Asekun says.
“If you’re an African American writer, there’s almost the sense that you can’t start fresh,” says UVa’s Railton. “You have to keep going back to this text because, for much of America’s history, it was the definitive account of slavery and race.”
But while scholars are delving ever deeper into questions of the history and the meaning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there’s one question no one appears to be able to answer — when the meaning of the “Tom” archetype flipped and went from being viewed as positive — or at least as better than the alternatives — to its modern-day meanings such as “sellout” or “disgrace to the race.”
The historical record is clear on the fact that the novel was widely vilified even as the public was snapping up copies faster than any book in previous publishing history. Southerners saw it as a vicious libel on their culture. In one memorable instance, a free Black in the slave state of Maryland received 10 years in jail as punishment for owning a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a map of Canada. But the book was controversial as well with the abolitionist community, because Stowe appears to advocate African colonization rather than emancipation as the solution to the moral blot of slavery.
“The contemporary criticisms were very pointed,” notes Dawn Adiletta, curator of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Conn. People such as William Lloyd Garrison and the militant, pro-Black Martin Delaney basically said, ” ‘Oh, we get it. If you’re Black in America, you’re either enslaved, dead (like Tom) or on a boat to Liberia (like George Harris). We get it.’ That was the substance of James Baldwin’s criticism, too.”
The ‘real offenders’
Scholars appear to have fewer objections to Stowe’s novel than they do to the many theatrical — and later film — adaptations the novel spawned. There was no international copyright law in 1852. Stowe owned only her novel; therefore, she had no rights to the characters and couldn’t control their transmission to other media — to “magic lantern” shows, ceramic figurines and plates and, of course, to the stage.
The first stage production came in 1852 and with the appearance of the famed George Aiken adaptation in 1853, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the hottest ticket in town, coast to coast. It’s been estimated that 50 people saw the stage show for every one person who bought or read a copy of the book. And the stage show took massive liberties with the book.
For starters, most of the antislavery content dropped out of the stage shows as producers concentrated on elaborate set pieces that could entertain or enthrall audiences.
For example, the episode in which the beautiful mulatto Eliza flees across the ice to freedom in Ohio takes all of three paragraphs in Stowe’s novel. However, onstage it became a tour de force staged with live horses, bloodhounds and, in one memorable production according to Adiletta, alligators.
In addition, while Stowe often is accused of mining the minstrel show tradition for stereotypes, the real offenders in this regard were the stage shows, which inserted “happy darky” song-and-dance sequences. Indeed, vaudeville’s Duncan Sisters spun off two popular characters into the play “Topsy and Eva,” which saw nearly 2,000 performances from 1923-27 and regularly was revived onstage and even on television until one of the sisters died in 1959.
“And this is the part that’s weird and frightening,” notes Railton, “that Stowe’s novel that she wrote to protest slavery as this evil that was going to damn the nation to hell if we didn’t abolish it became converted to an apology for slavery as ‘the good old days’ almost immediately after the Civil War.
“It’s almost as if, once you abolish slavery, that becomes part of the American past. It’s not ‘them’ anymore, there’s a corporate, national responsibility for it. And I think it’s at this point that America represses the real truth about slavery that we still don’t acknowledge to this day as a culture,” Railton adds.
Even so, Uncle Tom didn’t immediately fall out of fashion with the mass of Black Americans. As late as the 1890s — when an estimated 500 “Tom Shows” were touring the country — the Black-owned and operated Indianapolis Freeman touted a new column by “Uncle Noah” Baxter by comparing him favorably to Uncle Tom, says Barbara Webb, a doctoral candidate in performance studies at the University of Chicago.
“Not many of this line of aristocratic Negroes are preserved to us. In the antebellum days they would have ranked as the Uncle Toms of Mrs. Stowe’s famous production,” wrote the Freeman’s editor George Knox in 1897. Noting that the editor appears to confuse the stage shows with Stowe’s novel, Webb says she found many favorable treatments of plantation-themed stereotypes in the Black press.
“I think there was a lot of anxiety about urban migration and the rapid pace of change in African American life around this period, and phenomena such as Uncle Noah and the profusion of Black-authored dialect poetry were a few ways this was being negotiated — looking to a ‘purer,’ simpler racial past,” Webb adds. “As Uncle Noah wrote, ‘People were better and smarter ‘fore the war.’ “
But the Black community’s sentiments changed radically after the 1920s, says Dr. Ernest Allen, professor of Afro American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
“I don’t recall seeing anyone in the 1920s using the term ‘Uncle Tom’ as an epithet. But what’s amazing is how fast it caught on (in the 1930s). Black scholars picked (the term) up and just started throwing it at each other,” Allen says.
Allen says the militancy of the 1930s — with the Depression, the rise of the Communist Party, the organizing and marching, the outrage over the Scottsboro Boys — was crucial in tarnishing Uncle Tom’s reputation among both the Black intelligentsia and the Black masses.
“People are struggling and fighting for social change, and those who seem prepared to accept the status quo are not looked upon kindly,” Allen says. “The 1960s were very similar. There’s a sharp political struggle taking place in which you have to decide to be on the side of change or to offer excuses for the status quo, and that leads to a second wave of anti-Tomism.”
Why should we care?
But the question still lingers: Why should we care about Uncle Tom’s Cabin after 150 years? While Stowe may not have been the worst offender, she did create a narrative in which “in this debased world of popular culture, notions of the suffering of slaves become basic to American culture,” says Berkeley’s Williams. Even in 1852, “there’s the sense that this story about Black people becomes a White story for White consumption,” Williams adds.
Railton agrees. “Against her really good intentions, (Stowe) ended up telling a story in which, no matter how bad things are for Black people like Tom, the folks with the real problems are Whites who’ve strayed from God like (the “good” slave owner) St. Clare or (his daughter) little Eva or (the slave concubine) Cassy who’s almost White — and who all need Tom to ‘save’ them.”
But scholars agree that ignoring Uncle Tom’s Cabin is no solution at all.
“I think that one of the ways you tackle stereotypes is to confront them head-on,” Turner says. “It’s always important to know what people are saying about you. You’re more powerful if you’re aware.”
“People should absolutely be reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” says Allen. “We should beat people over the head with it every day of their lives. Americans should not be allowed to forget slavery.”
“As a culture, if we had left these archetypes behind, then we would not need to be discovering and rediscovering what’s in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and what’s not,” Railton says. “But we’re a long way away from that.”
America still plays and replays its “melodramas in Black and White”— tales of the noble, suffering servant juxtaposed with tales of the Black beast rapist, Williams says.
The Tom archetype re-emerges in films from “Driving Miss Daisy” to “The Green Mile,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and, last year’s teen hit, “Save the Last Dance,” Railton says.
“It’s always the same story — the White character goes to the inner city where all these Black people are hurting, and their hurt becomes the basis for your salvation. That’s the story Stowe told, and that’s why Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still important. You go to the movies, and that’s still the only acceptable role for Black people to play,” Railton says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com