Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Strange Career of Uncle Tom

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Strange Career of Uncle Tom

Article excerpt

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" , 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. …

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