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Uncle Tom

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Although Harriet Beecher Stowe's extremely succssful 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was the original source for the Uncle Tom idiom, its meaning is best understood through an examination of the numerous stage shows loosely based on the best-selling book. Theatrical entrepreneurs who did not share Stowe's antislavery zeal took great liberties with the novel's protagonist. Uncle Toms of the stage were usually depicted as thoroughly subservient individuals who willingly betrayed their black brethren in order to please their white masters. As a result, the Uncle Tom label is assigned to individuals who sabotage other blacks in order to further their own advancement. Known popularly as Tom shows, stage productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin were a mainstay of American theater well into the twentieth century. Uncle Tom became a trope, a figure of speech used to refer to fawning, selfish black men. Thus Uncle Tom's ubiquitousness had a definitive impact on mainstream society's assumptions about actual black men.

By the turn of the century, a curious battle developed between the purveyors of popular culture, who continued to promote Uncle Tom, and African American writers and social critics eager to bury the demeaning image. Thus filmmakers made several films similar to the stage shows. Even the Siam-based musical The King and I (1951) contains an ode to Uncle Tom's Cabin. For a collection of short stories on the black experience in the South, Richard Wright used the title Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Ralph Ellison noted that a Tom show was one of the original impetuses for his novel Invisible Man (1952). Ishmael Reed manipulated characters' names for his novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and Robert Alexander wrote a provocative play entitled I Ain't Yo Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom's Cabin (performed in Hartford, 1995). Nonetheless, the negative associations of the name remain consistent. For example, the Uncle Tom label is often applied to staunchly conservative African American Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It seems likely that this pejorative label will remain in the American vernacular.

Patricia A. Turner

Subjects: Literature

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