Chicago, Ill—Uncle Tom was commonly used as a pejorative insult during the civil rights movement, denoting an African American who had betrayed his own kind in favor of stability, argued Professor Kim Wallace-Sanders at the 2007 Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention. She said, “During the civil rights movement, to be called an Uncle Tom was perhaps the most severe insult [one] could receive from a fellow African American, with the connotative derogatory shorthand for everyone who had” betrayed the civil rights movement, caving in to white pressure. And so, she argues, the term came to signify “a shuffling, mumbling acceptance of inferiority.” However, the Emory professor argues, such portrayals share little connection to the original character within Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Quoting Coastal Carolina University’s Jo-Ann Morgan, Professor Wallace-Sanders asserted that it was the “visual representations that made Uncle Tom an Uncle Tom,” and that the modern depiction of Uncle Tom stems from plays by “white men in black face.” Morgan writes in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture, that within a year of publication Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated from “page to stage” and “three separate interpretations were scripted as plays that were mounted in New York City.” Lacking the copyright protections of post-1856 America, Morgan asserts that “publishers were too free to amend, abridge, and bowdlerize Stowe’s text,” allowing Uncle Tom’s character to change along with pre- and post-Civil War sentiments toward African-Americans.
The ever-aging depictions of Uncle Tom seem to parallel post-Civil war conceptions of the newly emancipated slaves, Morgan argues. “The Tom hugged by little Eva in the 1852 illustration was a far cry from the old geezer she read to on the cover of many turn-of-the-century children’s books,” she writes. Morgan adds “Although Eva remained an idealized child, Tom, once a virile father, grew old, stooped, and white-haired. Tom seemed dependent on the tiny girl.” In this way, the message of independence and strength that was once Uncle Tom’s was transfigured into a picture of black dependency.
Despite the anachronisms contained within the slur of “Uncle Tom,” this pejorative definition has long since permeated American popular culture. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “Uncle Tom” as either “a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites” or “a member of a low-status group who is overly subservient to or cooperative with authority.” The latter definition is derived from a comment by the radical feminist actress, Jane Fonda, who the dictionary quotes as saying “the worst floor managers and supervisors by far are women…Some of them are regular Uncle Toms.”
Professor Wallace-Sanders commented at the MLA convention that “One of the most bizarre uses of Uncle Tom as an insult, directed at women occurred…when Jane Fonda wanted to criticize conservative women for not performing the women’s movement.” “She said, ‘Let’s face it, you’re all a bunch of Uncle Toms,’” added Wallace-Sanders. “[Fonda] is clearly not referring to this Uncle Tom we’re looking at here,” she said.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often credited with introducing African-Americans to the world,” says Professor Wallace-Sanders. “In three years of research, I have yet to find one similar example outside of the U.S. of Uncle Tom being used as…an insult,” she said. Rather, her Puerto Rican colleague told her that “Uncle Sam” is more of an insult in Puerto Rico than “Tío Tom” (Uncle Tom).
The depiction of African-Americans in foreign reproductions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appear to be generally favorable. According to Professor Wallace-Sanders, these foreign children books lend Uncle Tom an air of regality, portraying him as young and vibrant and adorning him in fancy clothing.
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.