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." 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.
"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!"
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
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.'
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.