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The Journey of 'Uncle Tom': From Abolitionist Hero to Ultimate Sellout

Uncle Tom's death
This illustration from the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" depicts the death of Uncle Tom. Culture Club/Getty Images

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" was America's first bestseller. The antislavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe sold 310,000 copies in the United States and at least 1.5 million more abroad, where it was translated into 16 languages, according to the Christian Science Monitor. But the greatest impact of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," first published in 1852, was to awaken its mostly white northern readers to the horrors and un-Christian immorality of chattel slavery.

"[Stowe] was an abolitionist who tapped into the historical moment," says Patricia Turner, a professor of African-American studies at UCLA. "She thought really strategically. 'What do I have to write that will move the people to understand that it's impossible to be a good Christian and to hold slaves?' She knew exactly what kind of hero to create in Uncle Tom, what kind of situations to put him in and how to characterize the slave owners."

In the book (which may strike modern readers as overly sentimental), Uncle Tom is a deeply faithful Christian, a courageous and selfless family man who first risks his life to save a young white girl, Little Eva, and later gives his life rather than divulge the location of two female runaway slaves. Uncle Tom is beaten to death by his cruel master, Simon Legree, but not before Tom forgives his tormentor much like Jesus Christ on the cross.

Uncle Tom's Cabin; Harriet Beecher Stowe
This 1852 frontispiece of "Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly" has a picture of author Harriet Beecher Stowe on the left.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and its hero deserve credit for popularizing the cause of abolition in the lead-up to the Civil War. According to a well-worn legend, when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

But here's where the story of Uncle Tom takes an unexpected turn.

Given that Uncle Tom was the heroic martyr of one of the bestselling books of the 19th century, how did his name get twisted into a modern-day insult directed at Black people accused of being "traitors to their race"? How did the name of a beloved literary character become, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls it, "the ultimate instrument of black-on-black derogation"?

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'Uncle Tom' Takes to the Stage

Turner believes that the transformation of Uncle Tom from hero to "traitor" began during the thousands of wildly popular stage productions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" that toured the U.S. and around the globe from the 1850s through the 1930s. Many of these were minstrel shows featuring white actors in blackface, and immediately Uncle Tom's character and the book's storyline were changed to suit the mostly white, working-class audiences.

Uncle Tom's Cabin theater poster
This 1899 theater poster portrays Uncle Tom as a much older man than he was in the novel.
Bettmann/Getty Images

"In order to sell tickets, the producers needed to come up with stage shows that would have music, comedy and a happy ending," says Turner, never mind that Stowe's novel was an earnest tragedy. "And Uncle Tom was portrayed as this extremely deferential, subservient, poorly spoken Black man who would give the white slave owners or any other white person what they wanted, which was nothing like the book."

The stage productions also aged Tom into a feeble, white-haired old man rather than the hard-working 40-something he was in the book. Turner says that 19th-century white audiences didn't want to see a strong Black man on stage unless he was demonized as a "brute."

Scholars like Turner believe that the "Uncle Tom" insult began at a time when post-Emancipation Black America tried to distance itself from this caricature of the subservient slave. For a new generation of Black men and women searching for true freedom from white oppression, fellow Blacks who played into the "Uncle Tom" stereotypes of the minstrel shows were indeed "traitors" to the race.

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Or Maybe It Wasn't the Stage Plays...

When Adena Spingarn first read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in graduate school at Harvard, she was also struck by the obvious discrepancy between Tom's Christlike character in the book and "Uncle Tom" the racialized slur. After hearing about the transformation of Tom's character in minstrel shows, Spingarn tracked down hundreds of newspaper reviews of the many stage productions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and got a second surprise.

"In both white and Black newspapers, the character of Uncle Tom was described as virtuous and dignified," says Spingarn, not as a subservient old man or buffoon. "In fact, the objections to him by some conservative white critics was that he spoke too intelligently and too wisely, and was too perfect a Christian," some of the same objections to the novel.

Spingarn began to question the accepted theory that "Uncle Tom" the insult grew organically from the stage plays, especially since the stage productions were still seen as "dangerous" in former Confederate states like Kentucky, which banned all touring shows of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as late as 1906.

Instead of crediting the modern pejorative use of "Uncle Tom" to a creation of the "white imagination," Spingarn writes in her book, "Uncle Tom: From Martyr to Traitor", the character and his name have been "shaped by fundamental debates within the Black community over who should represent the race and how it should be represented."

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'Uncle Tom' as the Ultimate Insult

It's hard for 21st-century readers to grasp the impact and influence of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the 19th-century imagination, and how the character and name of Uncle Tom became the very image and emblem of the American slave.

"Uncle Tom was so ubiquitously understood a stand-in for American slavery that both white and Black Americans called the days of slavery 'the days of Uncle Tom,'" says Spingarn.

It is this association of Uncle Tom with the old days of slavery and its violently imposed white rule that so enraged a rising tide of Black political leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Spingarn says the term "Uncle Tom" first took on a negative connotation in the Black community as early as the 1880s, when a Black lawyer decried what he called a subservient, "Uncle Tom" type of manhood, adding, "I despise that as heartily as anyone."

The term "Uncle Tom" gained power as a potent political epithet in the 1910s, slung by people like Rev. George Alexander McGuire, an acolyte of the Black nationalist, Marcus Garvey.

"[T]he Uncle Tom n----- has got to go, and his place must be taken by the new leader of the Negro race," said McGuire at the first convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1919, "not a Black man with a white heart, but a Black man with a Black heart."

By the 1960s, "Uncle Tom" had become the choice insult for any Black man or woman (but mostly men) accused of "betraying the race." Malcolm X called Martin Luther King Jr. an "Uncle Tom." Stokely Carmichael called Roy Wilkins, the NAACP executive director, an "Uncle Tom." Muhammad Ali called at least three of his Black opponents "Uncle Toms."

More recently, "Uncle Tom" has been wielded against Black conservatives like Justice Clarence Thomas and now Black supporters of President Donald Trump. In 2018, Snoop Dogg called Kanye West an "Uncle Tom" for wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat.

Spingarn sees the long and strange history of Uncle Tom as part and parcel with America's ongoing struggle with its original sin of slavery and the reality of racism.

"The figure of Uncle Tom has changed because we've always used him to talk about race," says Spingarn. "What is authentic Blackness? What is the right protest strategy? What should the Black image be?"

As long as Americans are grappling with questions of race, Uncle Tom will be right there with us.

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