Why African-Americans Loathe 'Uncle Tom'

Folklorist Patricia Turner discusses "Uncle Tom" — the lead character in the anti-slavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe — as part of NPR's In Character series. The series examines the fictional characters who have defined American life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

As we've just said, the apology for slavery from the House of Representatives is just the latest public act in the century-long drama of slavery in the U.S. Fiction has shaped much of how America has viewed the lives of enslaved Americans. From "Gone to the Wind," to "Roots," to "Amistad," the public imagination has evolved from seeing slaves as happy servants to victims of history to defiant heroes who demanded that the country live up to its core beliefs.

But "Uncle Tom," is the most enduring fictional slave. He's the title character in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the novel written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852. The bestseller was meant to rally the moral sentiments of whites against the horrors of slavery, and it succeeded. But the character of "Uncle Tom" has become synonymous with servility and self-hatred.

Today, we reexamine the character of "Uncle Tom," as part of NPR's In Character series, a look at the fictional characters who have defined American life. With us to help unravel the story of "Uncle Tom" is Patricia Turner, folklorist and professor of African-American studies at the University of California, at Davis. Welcome.

Prof. PATRICIA TURNER (African-American Studies, University of California, Davis; Folklorist): I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: Professor Turner, it's my understanding that "Uncle Tom" was based on a real slave in Maryland named Josiah Henson. Can you tell us a little bit more about him, and how did Harriet Beecher Stowe know about him?

Prof. TURNER: Harriet Beecher Stowe was very offended by the passage of the fugitive slave bill in 1850 that required northerners who were protecting blacks from - on the Underground Railroad. It required them to return them to the South and to slavery, and she decided to write a book to combat that influence.

To do her research, she looked into slave narratives, which were accounts of very real slaves who had escaped along the Underground Railroad into freedom, one of whom was Josiah Henson. She used a variety of these texts to put together the characters in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

MARTIN: As I mentioned, the book became a bestseller. How big of a bestseller was it back in the day?

Prof. TURNER: It outsold the Bible when it was published. They had to keep the printing presses open 24 hours a day. It's commonly called "the first bestseller," because there had been nothing like this in popular literature prior to "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

MARTIN: You wrote a book about black images and their influence on culture. How much of an influence is "Uncle Tom" on today's culture? Can you give us a sense of just how much - I mean, let's set aside the whole stereotype, pejorative aspect of it, but just as a story. How important is it in the culture?

Prof. TURNER: If you look at the history of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," it's a widely successful book in the 1850s. By the late 1850s, producers of dramatic stage shows, minstrel shows, had embraced it and were starting to stage "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in theaters throughout the United States, throughout England, really throughout the world.

By the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Alva Edison films "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to experiment with film. It's one of the very first things that we have on film, and throughout the rest of the 20th century, we've got classic comic books, we've got cartoons, we've got stage shows.

When Showtime emerges as a cable channel, one of the first things it does is "Uncle Tom's Cabin." So it's had an enormous impact for the past, you know, 120 years.

MARTIN: Do you remember when you first read "Uncle Tom's Cabin"?

Prof. TURNER: I actually read it in about fifth grade, which is young. I read it so young, that I - I think I'm one of the few African-Americans who read the novel before being really familiar with the slur. So I don't remember ever hearing my parents referring to anyone as an "Uncle Tom" before I had actually read the novel.

MARTIN: So does that make you crazy when you - having read the novel at such a young age, did it make you crazy when you heard people refer to people that way? And did you want to go, no, no, but...

Prof. TURNER: Absolutely, and at that tender age, all of the sentimentality that Stowe incorporates into the novel really struck me. I mean, I wept when Uncle Tom died at the end, and I didn't see him as any kind of a sell-out, and so I've always found my self wanting to correct people who accuse someone of being an "Uncle Tom."

It was a really rough time for me during the Clarence Thomas hearings because it was very common in the black community to refer to Clarence Thomas as an "Uncle Tom." And my understanding of Justice Thomas, you know, he wasn't good enough to be the real Uncle Tom. I couldn't imagine him being someone who would have let himself be beat to death rather than reveal where these two black women were.

MARTIN: What is it that African-Americans hate about this story?

Prof. TURNER: Many African-Americans don't hate the real story that Stowe wrote. The Uncle Tom character that she gives us is extraordinarily Christian. The climax of the story really comes when Uncle Tom is asked to reveal where two slave women are hiding, who had been sexually abused by their master. And he refuses. Knowing that he is going to be beaten to death, he refused to say where they are. And African-Americans who have read the novel can appreciate what kind of heroism that took for a black man to sign away his life to save two black women.

Unfortunately, the stage depictions don't include that part of the story. They grossly distort Uncle Tom into an older man than he is in the novel, a man whose English is poor, a man who will do quite the opposite, who will sell out any black man if it will curry the favor of a white employer, a white master, a white mistress. It's that distorted character that is so objectionable to African-Americans.

MARTIN: How did that happen? It is quite remarkable that this is a book which was intended to, and in many ways succeeded in revealing to people who were not aware or chose not to pay attention to the horrors of slavery, I mean, the unimaginable brutality, the exploitation of women, the physical violence, all of that. It was meant to reveal this, and somehow or other this character, who is meant to be very brave and an example of, you know, Christian forbearance, turned into this - the sell-out. How did that happen?

Prof. TURNER: The producers of the early stage shows didn't think that they could attract an audience for the Uncle Tom as he was depicted by Stowe. They couldn't sell tickets to a theatrical production, the climax which would have been this man dying, rather than the revealing the whereabouts of these women.

They could sell tickets, as they had been successful by showing blacks in minstrel depictions, showing them liking to dance more than they liked to work, showing their insensitivity to each other, showing their willingness to tell the master or mistress what he or she wanted to hear. That sold tickets, and so those were the shows that they produced, staged and circulated throughout the world.

MARTIN: You're saying that this was a - that some of these sort of producers were modifying the story to fit commercial aims, but could part of that have just been racism? They just didn't want to accept the fact that African-Americans could be heroic figures. They didn't want to accept the brutality of slavery. I mean, there are slavery deniers, just like there are deniers of other, you know, genocides throughout history, right?

Prof. TURNER: Absolutely. I think they were interested in using their stage shows to revise the image of slavery that Stowe had, and other abolitionists had depicted in their literature. Stowe faced an enormous amount of criticism after the success of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" from the apologist for slaveries.

Even something like the film "Birth of A Nation," which was based on a novel entitled "The Clansman." The author of "The Clansman" said that he wrote that to counter the influence that the literary, the real "Uncle Tom's Cabin," had had. That it wasn't right for people to assume that slavery was this egregious institution and that slave owners were egregious individuals. He wanted to revisit and revise that to show how inferior blacks were and how superior white Southern planters were.

MARTIN: So that they would deserve their maltreatment.

Prof. TURNER: Exactly.

MARTIN: What about the real literary Uncle Tom? Is there any possibility of Uncle Tom's being redeemed to his original purpose? Has that ever happened? Do literary figures ever get restored to their original meaning, even if they have become something else in popular culture?

Prof. TURNER: I don't think the real Uncle Tom will ever be able to escape the shackles of the distorted Uncle Tom. I don't think that Stowe's character will ever be able to reclaim that. I think that if - if people interested in 19th century American literature take the time to read the novel, it gives them a grounding in what the abolitionists were trying to accomplish with the fight to abolish slavery.

MARTIN: Patricia Turner is a folklorist and author of "Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies," "Black Images and Their Influence on Culture," among other books. She joined us from UC Davis, where she is a professor of African-American and African studies. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. TURNER: It was nice to be with you.

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