The Myth of Uncle Tom

by kathleenljackson

I have been studying African American history for three years now, and in that time I have become familiar with the term “Uncle Tom” as being a black man eager to please and embody white values. However, when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life among the lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) I became increasingly perplexed by this one-dimensional assessment of Tom’s character.

I admit I am slowly getting used to the mischaracterization of prominent literary and history figures but can I please point out that the Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in fact, if we want to use binary terms, a revolutionary. In contrast to characters like Sambo and Quimbo, Tom refused to part with his values and beliefs. He disobeyed his master by refusing to whip other slaves, protected young female slaves from rape and helped runaway slaves before eventually being beaten to death by his master for his wrongdoings. Does that really sound like the actions of a selfish, race traitor?

From what I understand the derogatory version of “Uncle Tom” rose to prominence following consistent use by Malcolm X in the 1960s. I think Malcolm X either never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or completely failed to contextualize life as a slave…