One day back in the 2000s, when I was running a team at a reference book company, one of my staff members, a young white woman with progressive political views, came into my office to talk about something work-related. The discussion soon drifted to other topics, one of which was movies. When we got onto the subject of the actor Morgan Freeman, the young woman smiled conspiratorially and said, “What’s with him playing all these Uncle Toms lately, huh?” She seemed to assume that I, being black, would agree with her.
The comment stayed in my mind. The appellation refers to the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and it is generally applied to blacks who are subservient toward whites or traitorous toward other blacks. I found it odd and inappropriate for a white person to refer to a black person as an Uncle Tom, but I realized I had never bothered to sort out why. Remembering other occasions when I’d heard white people use the term, I recalled a man at a political meeting I attended in college and a woman in a prose workshop I led (she wrote, referring to a group of submissive black people, that she “felt like calling them Uncle Toms or something”).
Soon I became more attuned to the use of the term by nonblacks in my daily life and in the media. In 2013, for example, a Democratic Minnesota state representative, Ryan Winkler, referred to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “Uncle Thomas” in a tweet. (Winkler apologized.) In 2016, political blogger Betsy Rothstein called Montel Williams “the Uncle Tom of the 2016 presidential election” for supporting Republican John Kasich. Then, last year, I read Mary Karr’s 2015 nonfiction book, “The Art of Memoir,” whose text contains the following passage about Richard Wright’s 1945 memoir, “Black Boy”: “Wright’s refusal to shuffle Uncle Tom-like down the page trying to cull favor was a revolutionary act at his time in history.” When I complained about this on Facebook, some politically progressive friends said they had used the term themselves — and didn’t see why they shouldn’t continue to do so.
Here are a few reasons white people should steer clear.
The first has to do with an erroneous interpretation of the novel. The original Uncle Tom is, well, no Uncle Tom. Like millions of his real-life counterparts at the time, Tom is enslaved. He also has courage, dignity and a strong sense of what is right. When ordered by his cruel master, Simon Legree, to whip another slave, Tom refuses; he later encourages two other slaves to escape, and when Legree confronts him, asking where they have gone, Tom refuses to reveal their whereabouts, a decision that costs him his life. Tom heartily (but not blindly) embraces Christianity, the religion of his white oppressors; but then so do most of the black Americans I know.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a bestseller upon its publication, has long been credited with fueling the abolitionist movement (it created a furor among defenders of slavery). In the decades that followed, however, Uncle Tom became associated not with progress but with those who stood in its way. Most famously, in 1920, speaking at the first convention of black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Rev. George Alexander McGuire said that “the Uncle Tom n----- has got to go, and his place must be taken by the new leader of the Negro race . . . not a black man with a white heart, but a black man with a black heart.”
Suddenly, poor Uncle Tom had become a villain, and an insult was born. But as a character on the page, he remains brave, loyal and good. If the character Uncle Tom is guilty of anything, it is being a two-dimensional entity whose purpose is to serve his white creator’s ends: the same sort of nonperson, in other words, that wielders of the term “Uncle Tom” seek to make of the blacks they insult.
What’s more, whites’ good intentions — their impulse to use “Uncle Tom” to castigate internal foes of black progress — blind them to the fact that they are using a term of derision applied almost exclusively to black people, which puts it in the same league as another word. Williams understood this, answering the charge by replying to Rothstein on Twitter: “Why don’t u just stop dancing around it and call me a n**ger?”
Finally, white people have no business trying to police authentic black identity. I am not a black person who shouts “racism” every time the sky clouds over; I don’t make a habit of telling whites what they should and shouldn’t do; and I don’t believe in creating white discomfort for its own sake. But white people simply don’t have any moral authority here. The situations in which blacks are so-called Uncle Toms are ones in which whites will never find themselves: not taking a knee during the national anthem at a football game or continuing to work for a boss who unapologetically uses racial slurs. Confronted with the original Tom’s dilemma or its modern-day equivalent, how would you respond? I like to think I would do what Tom does, but I don’t know for sure, and I’m guessing that is true for most people.
Certainly, any person of any color can face situations in which the choice is between profit or safety, on the one hand, and principle on the other. There are words for a person who makes the less admirable choice. “Coward,” “sellout” or “traitor” would suffice. If the person is black, why use “Uncle Tom,” unless it is to punish the person for his color as well as his behavior?
Of course, black people sometimes use the “Uncle Tom” charge, too: The Atlanta Black Star, for instance, put together a list of people Malcolm X might label that way. Even for us, this is a bad idea — both because it encourages others to use the pejorative and because the term is so easy to misuse. Taking an unpopular stand is not necessarily the same as being a traitor, and it is time we all stopped acting as if it were. What is black freedom if it does not include the freedom to think for oneself? William O’Neal, the FBI informant who sold out the Black Panthers, resulting in the 1969 police killing of Fred Hampton, was an Uncle Tom, if we must use that term; I would hardly say the same of Montel Williams.
As a Democrat and a liberal, I dislike Clarence Thomas’s views; I doubt John Kasich will ever receive my vote, as he apparently did Williams’s; and I am deeply suspicious of the support for the 45th president expressed by Kanye West, one of the more recent victims of the “Uncle Tom” slur. But lacking the ability to peek into their minds, I cannot say for certain whether they speak and act honestly and according to their principles, which may differ from mine, or for other reasons. And so I avoid the term “Uncle Tom.” Using it is like discharging a weapon: Before you do, you want to be sure the person on the other end has it coming.
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