is a derogatory term for a person who perceives themselves to be of low status, and is excessively subservient to perceived authority figures; particularly a black person
The term black people is used in systems of racial classification for humans of a dark skinned phenotype, relative to other racial groups.Different societies apply different criteria regarding who is classified as "black", and often social variables such as class, socio-economic status also plays a...
who behaves in a subservient manner to white people
White people is a term which usually refers to human beings characterized, at least in part, by the light pigmentation of their skin...
The term comes from the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe was an American abolitionist and author. Her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was a depiction of life for African-Americans under slavery; it reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the United States and United Kingdom...
's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel "helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War", according to Will Kaufman....
. Critical and popular views of both the character and the novel have shifted over time, leading to a shift in the term's use.
Original characterization and critical evaluations
At the time of the novel's initial publication in 1851 Uncle Tom was a rejection of the existing stereotypes of minstrel show
The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface or, especially after the Civil War, black people in blackface....
s; Stowe's melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for White audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two women who escape from slavery. Stowe reversed the gender conventions of slave narratives by juxtaposing Uncle Tom's feminine passivity against the brave daring of three African American women who escape from slavery.
The novel was very influential and commercially successful, first published in serial form in 1851-1852 and in book version from 1852 onward. An estimated 500,000 copies of the novel itself had sold in the United States and internationally by 1853, including unauthorized reprints. Senator Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner was an American politician and senator from Massachusetts. An academic lawyer and a powerful orator, Sumner was the leader of the antislavery forces in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans in the United States Senate during the American Civil War and Reconstruction,...
credited Uncle Tom's Cabin
for the election of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...
and Lincoln himself reportedly quipped that Stowe had triggered the American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...
. Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing...
praised the novel as "a flash to light a million camp fires in front of the embattled hosts of slavery". Despite Douglass's enthusiasm, an anonymous 1852 reviewer for William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison was a prominent American abolitionist, journalist, and social reformer. He is best known as the editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and as one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, he promoted "immediate emancipation" of slaves in the United...
's publication The Liberator
suspected a racial double standard in the idealization of Uncle Tom:
James Weldon Johnson
- Uncle Tom’s character is sketched with great power and rare religious perception. It triumphantly exemplifies the nature, tendency, and results of CHRISTIAN NON-RESISTANCE. We are curious to know whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the White man, under all possible outrage and peril, as for the Black man… [For whites in parallel circumstances, it is often said] Talk not of overcoming evil with good—it is madness! Talk not of peacefully submitting to chains and stripes—it is base servility! Talk not of servants being obedient to their masters—let the blood of tyrants flow! How is this to be explained or reconciled? Is there one law of submission and non-resistance for the Black man, and another of rebellion and conflict for the white man? When it is the whites who are trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to vindicate their rights? And when it is the blacks who are thus treated, does Christ require them to be patient, harmless, long-suffering, and forgiving? Are there two Christs?
James Weldon Johnson was an American author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, and early civil rights activist. Johnson is remembered best for his leadership within the NAACP, as well as for his writing, which includes novels, poems, and...
, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke...
, expresses an ambivalent opinion in his autobiography:
- For my part, I was never an admirer of Uncle Tom, nor of his type of goodness; but I believe that there were lots of old Negroes as foolishly good as he; the proof of which is that they knowingly stayed and worked on the plantations that furnished sinews for the army which was fighting to keep them enslaved.”
In 1949 American writer James Baldwin
James Arthur Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic.Baldwin's essays, for instance "Notes of a Native Son" , explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th century America,...
rejected the emasculation
Emasculation is the removal of the genitalia of a male, notably the penis and/or the testicles.By extension, the word has also come to mean to render a male less of a man, or to make a male feel less of a man by humiliation. This metaphorical usage of the word is much more common than the...
of the title character "robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex" as the price of spiritual salvation for a dark-skinned man in a fiction whose African-American characters, in Baldwin's view, were invariably two dimensional stereotypes. To Baldwin, Stowe was closer to a pamphleteer than a novelist and her artistic vision was fatally marred by polemics and racism that manifested especially in her handling of the title character. Stowe had stated that her sons had wept when she first read them the scene of Uncle Tom's death, but after Baldwin's essay it ceased being respectable to accept the melodrama of the Uncle Tom story. Uncle Tom became what critic Linda Williams describes as "an epithet of servility" and the novel's reputation plummeted until feminist critics led by Jane Tompkins reassessed the tale's female characters. According to Debra J. Rosenthal in an introduction to a collection of critical appraisals for the Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
, overall reactions have been mixed with some critics praising the novel for affirming the humanity of the African American characters and for the risks Stowe assumed in taking a very public stand against slavery before abolitionism had become a socially acceptable cause, and others criticizing the very limited terms upon which those characters' humanity was affirmed and the artistic shortcomings of political melodrama.
A specific impetus for the novel was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which imposed heavy fines upon law enforcement personnel in Northern states if they refused to assist the return of people who escaped from slavery. The new law also stripped African Americans of the right to request a jury trial or to testify on their own behalf, even if they were legally free, whenever a single claimant presented a sworn affidavit of ownership. The same law authorized a $1000 fine and six months imprisonment for anyone who knowingly harbored or assisted a fugitive slave. These terms infuriated Stowe, so the novel was written, read, and debated as a political abolitionist tract.
Stowe drew inspiration for the Uncle Tom character from several sources. The best-known of these was Josiah Henson
Josiah Henson was an author, abolitionist, and minister. Born into slavery in Charles County, Maryland, he escaped to Ontario, Canada in 1830, and founded a settlement and laborer's school for other fugitive slaves at Dawn, near Dresden in Kent County...
, whose autobiography was originally published in 1849 and later republished in extensively revised editions after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin
. Henson was enslaved at birth in 1789. He became a Christian at age eighteen and took up preaching. Henson attempted to purchase his freedom for $450, but after selling his personal assets to raise $350 and signing a promissory note for the remainder Henson's owner raised the price to $1000; Henson was unable to prove that the original agreement had been for a lesser amount. Shortly afterward Henson was ordered on a trip south to New Orleans, and when he learned that he was to be sold there he obtained a weapon and contemplated murdering his white companions, but decided against violence because his Christian morals forbade it. A sudden illness in one of his companions forced their return to Kentucky
The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a state located in the East Central United States of America. As classified by the United States Census Bureau, Kentucky is a Southern state, more specifically in the East South Central region. Kentucky is one of four U.S. states constituted as a commonwealth...
, and shortly afterward Henson escaped north with his family, settling in Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...
where he became a civic leader.
Stowe read the first edition of Henson's narrative and later confirmed that she had incorporated elements from it into Uncle Tom's Cabin
. Kentucky and New Orleans figure in both Henson's narrative and the novel's settings, and some other story elements are similar.
In the public imagination, however, Henson became synonymous with Uncle Tom. After Stowe's death her son and grandson claimed she and Henson had met before Uncle Tom's Cabin
was written, but the chronology does not hold up to scrutiny and she probably drew material only from his published autobiography.
Minstrel stock character
Both the novel and its title character inspired numerous derivative works during the decade after its release, some of which lampooned and distorted the portrayal of the title character with politically loaded overtones. American copyright law before 1856 did not give novel authors any control over derivative stage adaptations, so Stowe neither approved the adaptations nor profited from them. Minstrel show retellings in particular, usually performed by white men in blackface
Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville, in which performers create a stereotyped caricature of a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the "happy-go-lucky darky...
, tended to be derisive and pro-slavery, transforming Uncle Tom from Christian martyr to a fool or an apologist for slavery.
Adapted theatrical performances of the novel remained in continual production in the United States for at least eighty years. These representations had a lasting cultural impact and influenced the pejorative nature of the term Uncle Tom
in later popular use.
Although not all minstrel depictions of Uncle Tom were negative, the dominant version developed into a stock character very different from Stowe's hero. Stowe's Uncle Tom was a muscular and virile man who refused to obey when ordered to beat other slaves; the stock character of minstrel shows became a shuffling asexual individual with a receding hairline and graying hair. To Jo-Ann Morgan, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin as Visual Culture
, these shifting representations undermined the subversive layers of Stowe's original characterization by redefining Uncle Tom until he fit within prevailing racist norms. Particularly after the Civil War, as the political thrust of the novel which had arguably helped to precipitate that war became obsolete to actual political discourse, popular depictions of the title character recast him within the apologetics of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy
The Lost Cause is the name commonly given to an American literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the traditional white society of the U.S. South to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War of 1861–1865...
. The virile father of the abolitionist serial and first book edition degenerated into a decrepit old man, and with that transformation the character lost the capacity for resistance that had originally given meaning to his choices. Stowe never meant Uncle Tom to be a derided name, but the term as a pejorative has developed based on how later versions of the character, stripped of his strength, were depicted on stage.
Or as Claire Parfait, author of The Publishing History of Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852-2002
opines, the many alterations in retellings of the Uncle Tom story demonstrate an impulse to correct the retellers' perceptions of its flaws and "the capacity of the novel to irritate and rankle, even a century and a half after its first publication."
- Tom Shows
Tom Shows were stage plays and musicals based on the 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel depicts the harsh reality of slavery...
- House Negro
House Negro is a pejorative term for a black person, used to compare someone to a house slave of a slave owner from the historic period of legal slavery in the US...
- Jump Jim Crow
Jump Jim Crow is a song and dance from 1828 that was done in blackface by white comedian Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice. The first song sheet edition appeared in the early 1830s, published by E. Riley. The number was supposedly inspired by the song and dance of a crippled African slave called Jim...
- Acting white
In the United States, acting white is a pejorative term usually applied to African-Americans, which refers to a person's perceived betrayal of their culture by assuming the social expectations of white society. Success in education in particular can be seen as a form of selling out by being...
- List of ethnic slurs
- Uncle Tom syndrome
Uncle Tom syndrome is a concept in psychology. It refers to a coping skill where individuals use passivity and submissiveness when confronted with a threat, leading to subservient behaviour and appeasement, while concealing their true thoughts and feelings...