Will the Real Uncle Tom Please Stand Up?

There is a myth about the character known in black America as Uncle Tom. To begin with, he was not a mythical character, created to describe the house nigger, a pejorative term used to verbally assault those slaves who worked in the living quarters of slave owners. Those assigned to such tasks as personal assistants, cooks and nannies often suffered a double-edged harshness. The first came from the slave owner who frequently chose those with special abilities for inside tasks and yet held little real respect for the chosen servant. The other and more violent sting came from other slaves. In these days of historical revisions, it is time to set the record straight about who Uncle Tom really was.  For more than a century, Uncle Tom has taken the rap for Quimbo and Sambo , two foremen who lived and worked on a plantation situated along the Mississippi River. Owned by a sadistic slaveholder, they were forced to work subordinate slaves with a cruel and tyrannical disregard for physical limitation or human dignity. Drunk with power to rule over other slaves their cruelty knew no bounds. The slapstick duo obliged their master, and by doing so were afforded privileges, above and far beyond fellow slaves. They were designated as leaders by slave owners who perceived a willingness on their part to take charge of their brethren on behalf of their masters. In exchange for the intoxicating false glory attached to the position of leader, they were required to demonstrate an allegiance to their appointing masters that was tantamount to self-loathing.
"What the devil's got into Tom?" Legree said to Sambo. "A while ago he was all down in the mouth, and now he's peart as a cricket."
"Dunno, Mas'r; gwine to run off, mebbe."
"Like to see him try that," said Legree, with a savage grin, "wouldn't we, Sambo?"
"Guess we would! Haw! haw! ho!" said the sooty gnome, laughing obsequiously. "Lord, de fun! To see him stickin' in de mud,--chasin' and tarin' through de bushes, dogs a holdin' on to him! Lord, I laughed fit to split, dat ar time we cotched Molly. I thought they'd a had her all stripped up afore I could get 'em off. She car's de marks o' dat ar spree yet."
"I reckon she will, to her grave," said Legree. "But now, Sambo, you look sharp. If the nigger's got anything of this sort going, trip him up."
"Mas'r, let me lone for dat," said Sambo, "I'll tree de coon. Ho, ho, ho!"

from UNCLE TOM'S CABIN or Life among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852
The master of this particularly hated pair, known only as Simon Legree, was described by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her 1852 classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Quimbo and Sambo took their derogatory names from the warped Mr. Legree. The two were said to evolve into a mirror image of the cruelty embodied by Mr. Legree, who is described by former slaves as the worst owner of humans the South ever saw. There was, however, a sharp turn in history when Legree received, as payment of an old debt, a slave named Tom from a neighbor. It was Mr. Legree's first encounter with black dignity. This encounter would also lay the foundation for a not-so-subtle division among blacks, which exists, even to this day. The book, Uncle Tom's Cabin as well as other notable works describing the history of slavery, refers to Tom as a rugged individualist who resisted, with dignity, the dictates of an insane system of humans owning humans. Like the character of Kunta Kente in Roots no amount of oppression or cruelty could break his spirit. Word spread from state to state after he challenged his new master to stop the cruelty exacted on field hands by the overseers. During an incident when the parents of a young female slave ran to Tom's cabin for his help to prevent Quimbo from raping their daughter, Tom confronted Legree as being the source of the evil that reigned terror on the entire plantation. He offered his own back to the whip in exchange for the freedom of the young woman. The lack of fear for his own life and his willingness to stand up to Legree earned Tom the respected title of Uncle, a title reserved in those days for the most honorable male in any given plantation. Black slaves adopted Tom as their own uncle and intercessor between master and slave.
                                                        This was the real Uncle Tom.

In addition to performing his assigned chores with the utmost precision, he became champion of the mistreated, and eventually the political opposition to the leaders . Legree, as well as other owners of Tom, found that to mistreat Tom brought about a work slowdown. Soon, Tom lived in his own cabin, which became the place of counsel and sanctuary for slaves with grievances. His willingness to confront black and white injustice earned him a limited freedom long before the Civil War. He did encounter opposition however, but it was not from white slave owners. His biggest enemies were those black overseers appointed as leaders over the people. They were being increasingly challenged by slaves who found the bold courage of Uncle Tom very attractive. The historical fact is that a quiet but growing movement could be found in plantation after plantation of slaves who wrapped themselves around the concept of individual rights and dignity. By the mid 1820's these rugged souls, who grew in their boldness to stand up to their overseers, became known as Uncle Toms. Black leaders who discovered they had an Uncle Tom among those they supervised were struck with panic at the impending challenge to authority. A line in the sand was drawn which some believe aided the spark we all know as the Civil War. The spark of contention, lit so long ago, continues to burn in the black community even today....

Bil Carpenter is a writer for Destiny Magazine. This article was originally printed in Destiny Magazine.

The Tom caricature portrays Black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, as with the Mammy Caricature, was born in ante-bellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if Black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies) were contented, loyal servants? The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter. Unlike the Coon, the Tom is portrayed as a dependable worker, eager to serve. Unlike the Brute, the Tom is docile and non-threatening to Whites. The Tom is often old, physically weak, psychologically dependent on Whites for approval. In his book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, Donald Bogle summarizes the depiction of Toms in movies:

Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n'er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts.
Bogle's description is similar to the portrayal of the main Black character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's Tom is a gentle, humble, Christian slave. His faith is simple, natural, and complete. Stowe uses Tom's character to show the perfect gentleness and forgiving nature which she believed lay dormant in all Blacks. These qualities reveal themselves under favorable conditions. Mr. Shelby, Tom's first Master is kind; therefore, Tom's innate spirituality flourishes. Mr. Shelby is not a good businessman; his financial troubles necessitate that he sell Tom. Tom does not run away despite a warning that he is to be sold. Mr. St. Clare, his second master, befriends Tom and promises to free him. Unfortunately for Tom, Mr. St. Clare is killed before signing manumission papers. Tom's fortunes take a decidedly sad turn. Tom is sold to Simon Legree, a brutal and sadistic deep South plantation owner; he is also a drunkard who hates religion and religious people.
Legree intends to make Tom an overseer. Tom is ordered by Legree to flog a woman slave. Tom refuses. Legree strikes him repeatedly with a cowhide lash. Again, he tells Tom to beat the woman. Tom, with a soft voice, says, "the poor crittur's sick and feeble; 'twould be downright cruel, and it's what I never would do, nor begin to. Mas'r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but, as to my raising my hand agin anyone here, I never shall, -- I'll die first."

Stowe wanted to show how slavery was incongruent with Christianity. How could Christians, she wondered, buy, sell, and trade slaves? How could they offer even tacit approval of slavery? How could White Christians allow their enslaved brethren to be sold to the likes of Legree? Her book is an unabashed attack on slavery, and Tom is one of her two perfect Christian characters; Mr. St. Clare's daughter, Eva, the other. Both die, Tom as a martyr.
Legree demands information from Tom about two women runaways. He knows that Tom can help him. Tom refuses. Legree beats Tom and threatens to kill him if Tom does not help him find the women. Tom, ever the Christian, does not lie, nor does he give Legree the information. Instead, Tom says:
'Mas'r if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood; and if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I'd give'em freely, as the Lord gave His for me. O, Mas'r! don't bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than 'twill me! Do the worst you can, my troubles'll be over soon; but, if ye don't repent, yours won't never end.'
Legree beats Tom; Sambo, one of Legree's Black overseers, flogs Tom . As Tom is dying, Legree yells to Sambo, "Give it to him!" Tom opens his eyes, looks at Legree, and says, "Ye poor miserable crittur! There ain't no more that ye can do! I forgive ye, with all my soul."  Soon afterwards, Tom dies. Stowe portrayed him as a Christ figure; albeit a childlike one. Tom was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of an evil institution.
 Despite being a model slave -- hard working, loyal, non-rebellious, and often contented -- Tom is sold, cursed, slapped, kicked, flogged, worked like a horse, then beaten to death. He never lifts a hand to hit his masters nor to stop a blow. Tom does not complain, rebel, or run away. This partially explains why the names "Uncle Tom" and "Tom" have become terms of disgust for African Americans. Tom's devotion to his master is superseded only by his devotion to his religious faith.
Uncle Tom's Cabin sold over two million copies within two years of its publication in 1853. In the first three years after its publication, fourteen proslavery novels were written to contradict the book's antislavery messages. A more subtle undermining of Stowe's portrayal of slavery occurred on entertainment stages. By 1879 there were at least forty-nine traveling companies performing Uncle Tom's Cabin throughout the United States.  The stage versions, often called Tom Shows, differed from Stowe's book in significant ways. Little Eva was now the star; all other characters were relegated to the periphery. The violence inherent in slavery was understated. In some instances the brutality was ignored completely. Slaves were depicted as "happy darkies" living under a benevolent, paternalistic system. Legree was mean but not a brute, and in some Tom shows he was portrayed as doing Tom a favor by killing him -- since Tom could not enter heaven unless he died.
 The stage Toms represented a major, and demeaning, departure from the original Uncle Tom . Stowe's Tom was an obedient, loyal, non-complaining slave, but he was not weak or docile. Tom resisted Legree. He gave his life rather than help Legree find the two women runaways. Stowe painted a slave with dignity -- a slave who dared to pity his master. Throughout the novel, Tom is venerable and kind. His theology, though simple, is fully developed and consistent. He is a man of principle.  Patricia Turner, author of Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies, wrote:
'Further marked inconsistencies are discernible between the values and principles of the reconstructed Uncle Tom and Stowe's original hero. Both are devout, stalwart Christians. Both are unflinching in their loyalty. But the reconstructed Uncle Toms are passive, docile, unthinking Christians. Loyal and faithful to white employers, they are duplicitous in their dealings with fellow blacks. Stowe's Tom is a proactive Christian warrior. He does more than accept God's will, he endeavors to fulfill it in all of his words and deeds. He is loyal to each of his white masters, even the cruel Simon Legree. Yet his allegiance to his fellow slaves is equally strong.'
The versions of Uncle Tom that entertained audiences on stages were drained of these noble traits. He was an unthinking religious slave, sometimes happy, often fearful. Significantly, the stage Toms were middle-aged or elderly. He was shown stooped, often with a cane or stick. He was thin, almost emaciated. His eyesight was failing. These depictions of Uncle Tom are inconsistent with Stowe's Tom who was a "broad-chested, strong armed fellow."  Stowe's original was the father of small children, unlike the desexed Toms of the stage. Stowe's Tom was capable of outworking most slaves.
Patricia Turner says of Stowe:
'By depicting his ability to save a child's life and work long days in the field, she delivers a brave, physically capable hero whose abilities contradict the lazy slave stereotype then being actively promoted by pro-slavery Southerners. The elderly, stooped-over, slow-moving Uncle Tom of contemporary popular culture could never have fulfilled the political ends sought by Stowe.'

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Compiled from:
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. (New York: Continuum, 1994), pp.5-6.

Patricia A. Turner, Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture
(New York: Anchor Books, 1994), p. 78.