Monday, July 11, 2011

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Tom's Cabin

Having finally gotten around to reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin", I have a bone to pick--not with the book itself, which was well-written and easy to see why it aroused anti-slavery sentiment in the late 1850s--but with the pejorative term "Uncle Tom" that is used today. Calling a black person an "Uncle Tom" is an insult levelled by blacks (and perversely, sometimes by whites) to accuse them of being overly subservient and docile towards "the man". The "man", of course, is a white man (or woman, I suppose) in power. An "Uncle Tom", in other words, is a black man who is ashamed of his race, and always trying to please "master".

The term, of course, comes from the character of Tom in the book, and likely is based on the fact that this particular Tom is always loving and obedient towards his masters--whether they're treating him relatively well, like the Shelbys or St Clairs, or cartoonishly brutal like Simon Legree. Tom also passes up the chance to escape as his fellow slave Eliza did, upon hearing he was about to be "sold south". This, presumably, is where the term "Uncle Tom" got its pejorative meaning.

However, I'd venture to say that the majority of people using the term "Uncle Tom" haven't actually read the book. After all, would this term really apply to a slave who:

1) Only chose to not run away from his original master because he was aware that doing so would have required his master's creditor to sell the entire plantation down south, which would be far more devastating to all the slaves involved?

2) Eloquently explained to one of his "kinder" masters that he appreciated being given his freedom, even though that meant certain poverty and never living as well as he did in the master's house, because it is better to be a free man owning his own body than a well-treated man owned by someone else?

3) Openly defied his brutal master Legree, willingly allowing himself to be beaten to death, rather than reveal where two of the runaway slaves were hiding?

What the book reveals is a noble character who takes his Christian values very seriously, and prizes his honor and loyalty to those around him far more than his own immediate well-being. The book also makes clear that this is a man who has accepted being a slave--as surely most slaves at the time had to, rather than despair over what seemed a hopeless situation--but wanted freedom all along.

Because of this, it seems wrong to use the term "Uncle Tom" (and certainly wrong for white people to use that term, since after all that would mean judging whether someone's "black cred" is sufficient). I'm still okay with calling someone "Bryant Gumbel" though.

No comments:

Post a Comment