What is an Uncle Tom?

The term Uncle Tom as an epithet has never made much sense to me. If you’ve ever read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, you know that Uncle Tom was the protagonist, a slave who was martyred by his master when he refused to give up the location of some runaway slaves. Harriet Beecher Stowe was not responsible for the parodies and adaptations that proliferated after her novel gained widespread success, and it was from those parodies that the term Uncle Tom derived its negative connotation:

The popular negative connotation of “Uncle Tom” has largely been attributed to numerous derivative works inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the decade after its release, rather than the original novel itself, whose title character is a more positive figure. These works lampooned and distorted the portrayal of Uncle Tom with politically loaded overtones.

It is a bitter irony that Stowe herself had no control over the development of the term Uncle Tom, and that the descendants of slaves in the United States have whole-heartedly adopted the negative sense of the label, in contradiction to its original sense and in agreement with the slaves’ most ardent oppressors.

For that reason, I think it would be best if the term Uncle Tom were never used. It has lost any meaningful content, and has instead become a catchall to criticize black people who won’t toe the politically correct line.

It’s as if black people are not allowed to think for themselves. Have you ever noticed that black people are always referred to in movements, groups, and collectives? Commentators act like black people only have power in numbers—united they stand and all that. So movements, parties, and coalitions are always trying to get “the black vote,” as if the black population is not made up of individuals. And black “leaders” have (wittingly or unwittingly) capitulated to this dehumanizing, collectivizing paradigm by adopting the negative sense of the term Uncle Tom. Because that term is a herding term. It’s a linguistic sheep dog that attempts to bring errant individuals back within the fold. And it works.

For that reason, I found it quite puzzling when Rush Limbaugh used the term to describe the (presumably black) Democrats who voted for Republican Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Senate primaries. For one, I don’t know if a white man can get away with using the term. For another, it’s hilarious that black people voting for a Republican are being called Uncle Toms by a white conservative. I would have expected the NAACP to drop that bomb. But no. But I don’t think the term really fits, no matter what sense you apply to it.

In the negative sense, these black Democrats have not really shown subservience to their oppressors or betrayed the commonly accepted “black cause.” It is a sign of the deep rift in the Republican party that Rush Limbaugh would even say that. And in the positive sense, of course, these black Democrats have not been Uncle Toms. Because they weren’t willing to sacrifice convenience and comfort for freedom.

Stowe’s Uncle Tom is truly a humble rogue—a man willing to die alone for his beliefs. He doesn’t live on anyone’s plantation. He keeps his job from honor, and he refuses to betray his comrades from an equal sense of honor. He is an individual. Politicians on both sides of the aisle don’t want black individuals. They want a black herd. And I fail to understand why black people are willing to submit to that yoke.