What we've made of Uncle Tom

In the 150 years since it burst onto the American scene, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' has been credited with starting everything from the Civil War to the culture wars

In the 1960s, when Muhammad Ali's black opponents in the ring insisted on calling him Cassius Clay and refused to address him by his new Muslim name, Ali fought back with words as well as punches. As he pummeled them, he would shout: "Uncle Tom, what's my name?"

Today, the term "Uncle Tom" is still considered a strong insult among African-Americans. Earlier this year, two black authors published "The American Directory of Certified Uncle Toms: Being a Review of the History, Antics, and Attitudes of Handkerchief Heads, Aunt Jemimas, Head Negroes in Charge, and House Negroes Against the Freedom Aims of the Black Race." In the book, Richard Laurence and James Lowe charge a number of prominent African-Americans, including Oprah Winfrey and Secretary of State Colin Powell, with being "Uncle Toms," or traitors to their race.

It wasn't always so. Uncle Tom, the leading character in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was once one of the best known and most sympathetic characters in American literature. And the novel, which is getting renewed attention as it marks its 150th year in print, is still widely read in US high schools and is among the most successful and influential books in American history.

In her 1852 novel, meant to publicize the evils of slavery, Stowe paints an Uncle Tom who is "spiritually and morally superior" to the three white men who successively own him, says Charles Johnson, an African-American scholar who has written an introduction to an anniversary editionof the book (Oxford University Press).

The Uncle Tom of the novel is a young and strong slave in the pre-Civil War South, a father of three young children who chooses, out of his Christian convictions, martyrdom over violence to deal with his oppressors.

"There's a very heroic moment in [the book] where he dives off of a ship and saves Little Eva's life, rescues her, when she's fallen," points out Patricia Turner, the author of "Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture." "But when you say 'Uncle Tom' [today], you don't usually imagine someone who's that strong and that robust."

At the end of the novel, Uncle Tom sacrifices his life to protect others. "He dies because he won't reveal to [his master] Simon Legree the presence of two female slaves who have been sexually exploited by Legree," Dr. Turner says. "[He] would rather be whipped to death than give up the location of two women who've been sexually abused."

A deep moral wrong

Stowe, an ardent abolitionist, came from a deeply religious New England family that included several Protestant ministers. Her novel was meant to show that slaveholding was a deep moral wrong, inconsistent with Christian practice, a view that was by no means universal at the time. Her long, winding story (it appeared first as a magazine serial) depicts a large cast of characters, black and white, who wander through a number of locales.

In her story, even kind Southern whites who care about Uncle Tom and other slaves suffer the ill effects of being slave owners. "The presence of slavery corrupts their ability to work as a family," Ms. Turner says. "What [Stowe] wants her white readers to see is that there can't be harmoniously good, white slaveholding families.... There isn't a way of making slavery and Christianity compatible. It just doesn't work."

The book, with its dramatic storytelling, no-holds-barred discussions of the hot-button issue of the day, and heart-rending conclusion, was an instant bestseller. By year's end, it had sold an astonishing 1.5 million copies worldwide.

The novel had "a great impact on people's notions of the evils of slavery," says Thomas Gosset, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture." Many Northern soldiers in the Civil War had read it, he says. When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the White House in 1862, according to Stowe's daughter, he said, "So this is the little lady who wrote the big book that made this great war." Much later, writer Langston Hughes would call "Uncle Tom's Cabin" America's "first protest novel."

But its fame and success was also the start of trouble for the image of Uncle Tom. The novel was made into a number of highly successful theatrical shows. Stowe held no copyright to prevent stage adaptations, which were done without her approval and without compensation. At one point, nearly 500 "Tom companies" were performing around the country, including one by showman P.T. Barnum. These shows removed some characters in the book, enlarged the roles of others, and added song and dance, even comedy, to conform the story to the elements popular in the minstrel shows of the day.

The story was "seized by popular culture, and people ran away with it and basically did what they wanted to with it," says Kathleen Hulser, curator of a new exhibition, "Reading Uncle Tom's Image: a Reconsideration of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 150-Year-Old Character and His Legacy," which runs through Feb. 9 at the New York Historical Society. "The Uncle Tom that we know as an insult – as an old man who is meek, submissive, doesn't stick up for himself, desexualized – that really isn't who the person is in the novel. It's who he became on stage."

Some of these spectacles even ended with the actors portraying Tom and Little Eva, a sympathetic white child who dies tragically in the novel, literally ascending together to heaven. No mention was made of the novel's end, in which several slaves manage to escape to Canada and study to become Christian missionaries to Africa.

An unwelcome depiction

These shows, usually played in blackface by white actors, lingered well into the 20th century. But by the 1930s, blacks began to gain the ear of white Americans with word that this version of Uncle Tom was not appreciated. In reaction to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," for example, Richard Wright wrote "Uncle Tom's Children" (1938), a portrait of life under Jim Crow laws in which black characters take strong, sometimes violent, actions in their own defense.

Perhaps the most famous black critic of the novel has been James Baldwin, who in 1948 criticized what he saw as a desexualized Uncle Tom, while at the same time charging Stowe with a prurient interest in the sex and violence of the slavery system.

By the 1960s, Uncle Tom had gone from being simply weak to being a "race traitor" in the minds of black leaders such as Malcolm X, Hulser says.

Through manuscripts, illustrations, portraits, newspaper cartoons, pamphlets, photos, sculptures, dolls, figurines, sheet music, posters, even games and playing cards, the New York show depicts the deep influence "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has had on American culture. Shirley Temple's dances with Bojangles in early Hollywood movies are widely seen as imitating the relationship between Little Eva and Uncle Tom. Some observers see Stowe's work as an influence on Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel "Gone With the Wind." Even 1970s "blaxploitation" films such as "Shaft" and "Superfly" can be viewed as mirrored images of the stage version of Uncle Tom: These black men are strong, young, sexual, outspoken, uncompromising – and not religious.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" has also "inspired lots of black artists and authors," says Turner, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California at Davis, who teaches the book in his classes. "Ralph Ellison talks about finding a doll from one of these Tom shows, and that inspiring him to write 'The Invisible Man.' Ishmael Reed has a book called 'Mumbo Jumbo' where he flips the characters' names around. There's a Topsy-like character called 'Just Grew.' And there's play called 'I Ain't Yo' Uncle: the New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom's Cabin,' by Robert Alexander."

On campuses today, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" appears to have won an enduring place in the canon, not in courses on African-American literature, since Stowe was white, but in the study of popular historical images of blacks. It remains controversial, however.

'It simply can never be ignored'

"If 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is anything, it is – and has always been – a Rorschach test for a reader's feelings about slavery in general and black people in particular," writes Dr. Johnson in his introduction to the new edition. "It transcended the category of literature to become that rarest of products: a cultural artifact; a Rosetta stone for black images in American fiction, theater, and film – not so much a novel, one might say, as an experience inseparable from the events that precipitated the Civil War."

Twenty-first-century readers find Stowe's depictions of blacks "ineluctably racist" and "condescending and unacceptable," reflecting a paternalistic view of African-Americans as "simple and childlike," Johnson says. He and many critics point out that it seems she couldn't imagine a life for freed slaves in America, so she suggests that repatriation to Africa is the only solution.

Yet for Johnson, the novel is also an "impressive, genre-blending amalgam of ahistorical romance, antislavery agitprop, adventure yarn, Dickensian humor, and Christian allegory," a work that "brims with vivid characters.... It simply can never be ignored."

This 150th anniversary examination is showing that the story of "Uncle Tom" and the book that introduced him to Americans is much more complex than a simple story of a racial insult. Despite its flaws, Hulser says, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" "presented the broadest, warmest, most fully developed cast of black people who had ever been in a novel in the United States. You don't want to forget that."

• E-mail lambg@csps.com

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.