February 01, 2013

In Defense of Uncle Tom

Hollywood Shuffle - NAACP & Uncle Tom

Honestly, it was something I'd never questioned.

For those of you who don't know, within the African-American community, an Uncle Tom is a race traitor: someone who would harm other Blacks to promote him or herself among Whites.  The term comes from an 1800's book by Harriet Beecher Stowe called "Uncle Tom's Cabin", set during the period of American slavery.

But, to be perfectly honest, I never actually knew what it was that Uncle Tom had done to sell out the other slaves around him.

This, of course, is why I love wikipedia.  After all, how could I have figured out everything I needed to know about Ayn Rand last summer without having to subsidize her books?

But that, my friends, is for another blog post.

Point being, I looked up "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and, frankly, I was shocked by what I read.

Here's the link to the plot synopsis - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle_Tom%27s_Cabin#Plot

Uncle Tom was a deeply Christian slave who bonded with certain whites in such a way as to convince them of his humanity.  His Christian faith sustained him as he withstood punishment from a hateful slavemaster because he would NOT whip the other slaves.  And when asked to rat out certain slaves who'd escaped, Tom held his tongue, protecting them, even as he's being beaten to death.  He even forgives the overseers for killing him.

Moreover, at the time that it was published, 1852, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was seen as a key abolitionist text, one of the first to highlight the daily horrors of slavery.  It was loathed among the slaveholding class and the author was allegedly referred to by Abraham Lincoln himself as "the little lady who started this great war."

Unfortunately, history was unkind to this book's legacy.  As Reconstruction dragged on, Southern whites took to making blackface stage plays based on the book outside of Stowe's creative control, most of which depicted the near-saintly Uncle Tom as the exact opposite of the character's intention.

Honestly, I don't know what else to say, other than it pays to really know your history.

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