The Narrative Of “The Uncle Tom” & How It Manifests In Today’s African American Culture
Uncle Tom or best known as the house negro by some is the fictional narrative of a black man in the book written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1981). The book is considered to be a vital part of the abolitionist movement, however, today if someone calls you an Uncle Tom in the African-American community, this person is considered to be a problematic black person (Let’s Talk, 2021).
This is because there is a common belief that Uncle Tom’s character is portrayed to be a person who is betraying the black community. It is therefore argued that Uncle Tom’s character is just a narrative based on the fantasy of a white woman's imagination. But the purpose of the storyline was to shed light on the topics surrounding slavery and how during the mid-19th century slave owners were exploiting human beings. This did not come across in the black community as it should (Let’s Talk, 2021). There are immense issues with the way the story is told and ultimately Uncle Tom has become an evil character no one in the black community wants to be associated with.
The fictional novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe was first published in 1852 and has been an influential book since it first appeared (Figure 1). This book was one of the most popular stories people wanted to read and enjoyed by the abolitionists in the North (Britannica, 2023). Up to 300,000 copies were sold in the first few years after its publication (Britannica, 2023).
Due to the book's continued success, the novel was adapted for theatres more than once (Britannica, 2023). The accomplishments of the book did not reflect the shortcomings the storyline caused for a community that has been the most affected by this misinterpreted portrayal of a black man. The narrative the book illustrates has caused fury within the African American communities because the main character Uncle Tom has not fulfilled heroic tasks but instead, he was considered to have betrayed them.
The betrayal Uncle Tom has caused is that he seems to help out former white slave owners more than the enslaved black people in his neighbourhood. However, the novel ends with Uncle Tom being lynched for hiding the secrets of runaway slaves (Let’s Talk, 2021). This part of the novel was cut out in the movie adaptions, which consequently caused the character of Uncle Tom to appear weak and disloyal to his own community (Let’s Talk, 2021). In the 21st century, Uncle Tom is associated with a person who is disloyal, spineless and a sellout to the African-American community. His name has become a derogatory term, which lets others know if they have done something in bad faith (Let’s Talk, 2021).
In this essay, the main aim is to scrutinize the shortcomings of this novel. The objective is to understand the controversial character of Uncle Tom and how his betrayal manifests in today's African American society. First, there will be background information demonstrated on what effects portraying evil characters have through Dominick Lacapra's (2001) writing and Roy F. Baumeister's (1997) definition of evil. Second, the analysis will aid in understanding the obedient character of Uncle Tom and that this had an evil outcome with the help of an article by The Guardian.
In addition, the critical analysis of Uncle Tom by Professor Cherly Thompson will be illustrated here. Third, the discussion will unravel real-life examples of the effect the popular Uncle Tom character has on the African-American community and how it is used as a derogatory term. This will include examples of the impact this character has beyond its own narrative. In the end, the conclusion will serve as a summary of the main topics and suggest how the future will be affected if other characters such as Uncle Tom are introduced.
| Background Information
The abolishment movement's main purpose was to end slavery. In the USA the movement made an impact in the late 18th Century because the globe was questioning the morality behind this evil act (Editors, 2009). There was a need to reform and change old habits of thought all around the world (Editors, 2009). There were many different approaches taken to accomplish this goal, one of them was to write novels about the intrinsic behaviors of the people involved. The novels were supposed to depict different viewpoints about how people feel, act and live.
The importance of such novels has been discussed in many distinct fields because retelling horrific stories of history bears relevance to those who know little about it. Authors such as Lacapra (2001) have dealt with exploring these forms of topics, to understand the complex relationship between history and trauma. Lacapra (2001) explains that it is difficult to represent and retell historical events that include many traumatic moments.
The distinct challenges authors are confronted with have to do with the fact they are limited to capturing the psychological and emotional dimensions of trauma (Lacapra, 2001). This is because it becomes difficult to maintain an objective and distant stance when writing about a historic event which includes traumatic times (Lacapra, 2001). In fact, novels that depict historical moments have an effect on people. It is therefore important to discuss how people react towards the novels when they are confronted with pure evil.
“Strange, what brings these past things so vividly back to us, sometimes!” - Uncle Tom's Cabin
However, pure evil is a complex concept, since it acquires multitudes of distinct forms to be considered evil. Baumeister (1997) thus tried to define evil according to his beliefs. This is because he required evil to have a definition so it becomes less of a problem. In this sense, evil can be a human concept and is related to moral agency and the choices a person makes (Baumeister, 1997). Simply put, Baumeister (1997) believed that human evil consists of harm and an individual's engagement in malicious behaviour. The person must be conscious and intentional in their act to inflict harm on others (Baumeister, 1997). According to Baumeister, 1997), his framework offers a clear distinct space to understand and address human evil. His definition, therefore, suggests how individuals' behaviour can be considered evil.
This means that in order to judge Uncle Tom’s behaviour and to incorporate the definitions of human evil, it is vital to also reflect on the fact of why such a character came into existence in a novel. By applying the knowledge of Lacapara’s (2001) ideas, it becomes clearer why Uncle Tom’s character might be misinterpreted. But it seems also important to reflect on the narrative in which Uncle Tom intentionally helps out white slave owners. This has caused an uproar within the African American communities and resulted in them believing that any association with Uncle Tom is derogatory.
The novel Uncle Tom by Stowe displays a controversial example of a slave character. This is because the slave seems to be subordinate towards his owners by betraying other slaves. His behaviour in the novel has been praised by the white community for portraying a realistic historical event, while the African American community consider it a betrayal and depiction of a spineless sell-out.
Subordinate behaviour can be viewed as a dangerous form of evil that impacts larger groups in a negative aspect. In the article “Stanley Milgram taught us we have more to fear from zealots than zombies” by The Guardian, some main points about the implications of obedience have been explained (Reicher & Haslam, 2011). The Milgram experiment showcases the problems of people who willingly obey orders even if they will potentially harm others. Within this experiment, people were forced to shock others due to the instructions given by a person in a white lab coat. The people who were instructed to shock another person, continued to do so because they believed that they had to obey orders. This experiment proved that normal people will cause harm due to specific group dynamics and social systems (Reicher & Haslam, 2011).
In this case, the behaviour of Uncle Tom could be excused and should force people to reconsider their perspective on him. This is because Uncle Tom’s evil behaviour can be considered a result of specific social systems and group dynamics, which could excuse the fact that he had to betray his people. However, the character of Uncle Tom does not need to be celebrated by the African American communities. Uncle Tom’s character seems to serve no positive attributes to their life. Instead, it can be considered that the fictional narrative has not reflected the psychological shortcomings an African American has felt, since the story was written by a white person, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
“Our friend Tom, in his own simple musings, often compared his more fortunate lot, in the bondage into which he was cast, with that of Joseph in Egypt; and, in fact, as time went on, and he developed more and more under the eye of his master, the strength of the parallel increased.” - Uncle Tom's Cabin
The purpose of Uncle Tom’s character has been described by Professor Cheryl Thompson as a necessity to white culture instead of African Americans (Grady, 2023). This is because Uncle Tom is represented as a simplistic and degrading caricature, which portrays harmful racial biases (Grady, 2023). The book, therefore, is considered significant in Western culture but not in African American ones because Uncle Tom is subservient and accommodates white authority (Grady, 2023).
According to Professor Thompson, the character has fundamentally impacted African Americans because it was continuously shown in various media and popular culture (Grady, 2023). Portraying such a stereotype has a damaging impact on African American communities, states Professor Thompson (Grady, 2023). Professor Thompson has analyzed that if the story is continuously shared it will fuel the myth that African Americans should be submissive, hinder progress and should maintain power imbalances (Grady, 2023).
In this sense, the African American communities are negatively impacted by the portrayal of the Uncle Tom character, which has been consistently sold and published by many different companies and adapted into multiple movies. The narrative seems to have only pleased the white culture, by assuming that it demonstrates a historical moment with the accuracy of traumatic moments. However, it seems as if the book has failed to do this in an objective and distant manner, which has caused the Uncle Tom character to portray stereotypical traits.
In the African American community, Uncle Tom's references carry derogatory meanings. If a person is referred to as Uncle Tom, they are most probably conducting something a sell-out would or helping out a white person too much for the other African Americans liking. In this sense, the African American person who has been accused of acting like Uncle Tom has betrayed their own kind as if therefore subject to be considered disloyal. This is because Uncle Tom has been written from the perspective of a white person who wanted to characterize the African American as a certain weak person, that is subordinate, hinders progress and supports power imbalances.
In the following discussion, a few examples will be portrayed in which the term “Uncle Tom” is used by African Americans to criticize the behaviour of another African American. The dialogues stem from various movie clips, in which the term serves in a derogatory sense. This is because the term Uncle Tom is solely used by African Americans to condemn one another and serves as a reminder of what a stereotypical African American looks like to a white person.
The first example is a short TikTok clip from the sitcom “The Neighborhood”, where the main characters have a neighbourhood barbeque. The characters live in an originally black neighbourhood, but the white actors Dave and Gemma moved there due to personal circumstances. During the barbeque Calvin and Dave get into a heated competition about their food, but Calvin persists that he has more rights since he is black and has been part of this community longer than Dave.
He eventually tells the other African Americans not to be a “sell-out” by trying Dave’s food. However, one of the African American neighbours tries to go to Dave which prompts Calvin to describe him as “Uncle Tom” (00:16 min, TikTok clip). Dave gasps because he is aware that this is a derogatory term in their culture, but Calvin assures him that this is actually his uncle named Tom. Even though this clip illustrates a comedic TV show, the term Uncle Tom has been used to showcase the problematic dimensions it carries in the African American community.
The second example is the movie “Stepsisters” (2018) in which a young African American college student tries to get into grad school at Harvard. However, due to her fight with her parents, she was not allowed to receive a recommendation letter. But her dean offered her one under certain circumstances. She had to help out a predominantly white sorority. While she was fulfilling the quest, she had to hide from her other African American peers so that they would not consider her a sell-out. However, one of the students figured it out so she tried to take control of the narrative. In Figure 2 this moment is displayed when she calls herself “Auntie Tom, the sell-out house Negress”, which is the female version of an Uncle Tom.
The two examples showcase the problematic effects the novel has had on African American society. Even though the two examples are from a sitcom TV show and a comedy movie, the two have used the term Uncle Tom in a derogatory sense from one African American to another.
It is therefore important to evaluate the problematic message the character Uncle Tom carries in the novel. The novel has had widespread international popularity and was hailed as a bestseller because it was considered to portray fundamental ideas of the abolishment movement. But what most seemed to overlook is Stowes' manner of writing, in which she portrayed the Uncle Tom character as a stereotype representing racial bias.
Her novel has had a grand influence on how African Americans are portrayed in the media. This problem bears similarities towards the other characters that poorly represent African Americans. However, this damaging portrayal of African Americans has not solely happened in the narrative of Uncle Tom. Also, food brands such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have contributed to this issue through the image that they portray on food packaging.
“Perhaps you laugh too, dear reader; but you know humanity comes out in a variety of strange forms now-a-days, and there is no end to the odd things that humane people will say and do.” - Uncle Tom's Cabin
The image portrays this belief that African Americans are submissive, hinder progress and maintain power imbalances. In the case of Aunt Jemima, the images have been removed and the product has been rebranded (Nittle, 2021). In addition, the Uncle Ben brand has promised to evolve its brand, to combat the underlying associate the image carries (Voytko, 2020). This means that the globe is becoming aware of the controversial message these images carry, which consequently evokes the idea that this has to change.
The novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has constructed a problematic character, which was supposed to portray a historical event in time and the accurate trauma of a specific group. However, some people perceived Uncle Tom to be the evil of the narrative, because the book seemed to focus on stereotypical features that carried racial biases. The novel's popularity has caused African Americans to be portrayed in a certain narrative that did not make them feel accurately represented.
According to Lacapra’s (2001) explanation of the difficulty of presenting accurate historical events, it has been suggested that the traumatic events told in the Uncle Tom story have caused a backlash in the African American community. The definition of Baumeister (1997) explored the human evil perpetrated by the Uncle Tom character. The various forms of evil are complex, but the fact that Uncle Tom had maliciously committed these contributed to the thought that he is considered evil.
The article by The Guardian has added understanding to the notion that obedient behaviour can have harmful outcomes. The article sheds light on the problem of subordinate behaviour by using the Milgram experiment as an example. These similarities are present in the novel and aid in explaining why Uncle Tom might have committed these malicious acts towards his peers. Professor Thomspon has added on to explain why the portrayal of such a character as Uncle Tom fuels the idea that African Americans are stereotyped today as submissive, hindering progress and maintaining power imbalances.
The two examples mentioned in the discussion part showcase the larger impact the novel has had on the African American communities. The Uncle Tom term is used in a derogatory manner, to criticize an African American person as supposedly betraying their peers. In the end, the larger influence of the Uncle Tom character has been compared to food brands' images of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. It has been stated that these food brands have either removed the image or rebranded their product due to the controversial story the pictures illustrated. In this sense, the rebranding should prompt also a change in the narrative of Uncle Tom, by maybe considering it not a revolutionary front of the abolishment movement, but rather a damaging portrayal of stereotypes.
Overall, regardless if it is a food brand, a novel or a movie, the portrayal of certain characters needs to maintain a degree of good. The portrayal of evil in art can have a harmful impact on society and the future. The image becomes a trademark, and it might be hard for some to shake off the message it carries. It is therefore important to reconsider traditional art in a new form so that the narrative is evaluated and the evil is not transformed into reality. In conclusion, Uncle Tom showcases one of many examples of evil and disasters in the arts.
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Voytko, L. (2020, June 17). Brand Will ‘Evolve’ Following Aunt Jemima’s Removal. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisettevoytko/2020/06/17/uncle-bens-brand-w...