Content Note: The subject matter in this post contains images, words, and phrases of a racist nature, some of which may be graphic.
Those of African descent have long been ‘othered’…treated as if they aren’t part of the human race…treated as subhuman…or only part human; certainly not deserving of the same rights as everyone else (often read as white people). This othering has resulted in racist caricatures of Blacks. These denigrating caricatures treat Black people in a dehumanizing manner. One such racist caricature is ‘The Tom’ (I find this caricature especially offensive because the Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was portrayed as a father who was physically strong, young, and loyal to the men he called master. He was also a principled man who tried to live by the values he believed were embodied in Christianity. As you’ll see from this article, the nature of the Uncle Tom changed over time to become one of an older man, with no children, who was not physically strong. He was also a simple man with no depth nor principles, who was loyal to his white master, and disloyal to other blacks. This version of Uncle Tom stripped the character of his roots. The alteration of the Uncle Tom to a man who was docile and passive, who wouldn’t rebel or complain was meant to show that slaves didn’t have it that bad. It was as if this version of the Tom caricature sought to retcon slavery. This attitude is still found today in politicians who claim that slaves didn’t have it that bad. I find this deeply offensive and reprehensible.)
The Tom caricature portrays black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, like the Mammy caricature, was born in ante-bellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies), were contented and loyal? The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter. Unlike the Coon, the Tom is portrayed as a dependable worker, eager to serve. Unlike the Brute, the Tom is docile and non-threatening to whites. The Tom is often old, physically weak, psychologically dependent on whites for approval. In his book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, Donald Bogle (1994) summarizes the depiction of Toms in movies:
Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts. (pp. 5-6)
Bogle’s description is similar to the portrayal of the main black character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novelUncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s Tom is a gentle, humble, Christian slave. His faith is simple, natural, and complete. Stowe uses Tom’s character to show the perfect gentleness and forgiving nature which she believed lay dormant in all blacks. These qualities reveal themselves under favorable conditions. Mr. Shelby, Tom’s first Master is kind; therefore, Tom’s innate spirituality flourishes. Mr. Shelby is not a good businessman; his financial troubles necessitate that he sell Tom. Tom does not run away despite a warning that he is to be sold. Mr. St. Clare, his second master, befriends Tom and promises to free him. Unfortunately for Tom, Mr. St. Clare is killed before signing manumission papers. Tom’s fortunes take a decidedly sad turn. Tom is sold to Simon Legree, a brutal and sadistic deep South plantation owner. Legree is also a drunkard who hates religion and religious people.
Legree intends to make Tom an overseer. Tom is ordered by Legree to flog a woman slave. Tom refuses. Legree strikes him repeatedly with a cowhide lash. Again, he tells Tom to beat the woman. Tom, with a soft voice, says, “the poor crittur’s sick and feeble; ‘twould be downright cruel, and it’s what I never would do, nor begin to. Mas’r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but, as to my raising my hand agin anyone here, I never shall, — I’ll die first” (Stowe, p. 439).
Stowe wanted to show how slavery was incongruent with Christianity. How could Christians, she wondered, buy, sell, and trade slaves? How could they offer even tacit approval of slavery? How could white Christians allow their enslaved brethren to be sold to the likes of Legree? Her book is an unabashed attack on slavery, and Tom is one of her two perfect Christian characters; Mr. St. Clare’s daughter, Eva, the other. Both die, Tom as a martyr.
Legree demands information from Tom about two women runaways. He knows that Tom can help him. Tom refuses. Legree beats Tom and threatens to kill him if Tom does not help him find the women. Tom, ever the Christian, does not lie, nor does he give Legree the information. Instead, Tom says:
Mas’r if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I’d give ye my heart’s blood; and if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give’em freely, as the Lord gave His for me. O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ’twill me! Do the worst you can, my troubles’ll be over soon; but, if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end. (p. 508)
Legree beats Tom; Sambo, one of Legree’s black overseers, flogs Tom. As Tom is dying, Legree yells to Sambo, “Give it to him!” Tom opens his eyes, looks at Legree, and says, “Ye poor miserable crittur! There ain’t no more that ye can do! I forgive ye, with all my soul” (p. 509). Soon afterwards, Tom dies. Stowe portrayed him as a Christ figure; albeit a childlike one. Tom was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of an evil institution.
Despite being a model slave — hard working, loyal, non-rebellious, and often contented — Tom is sold, cursed, slapped, kicked, flogged, worked like a horse, then beaten to death. He never lifts a hand to hit his masters nor to stop a blow. Tom does not complain, rebel, or run away. This partially explains why the names “Uncle Tom” and “Tom” have become terms of disgust for African Americans. Tom’s devotion to his master is surpassed only by his devotion to his religious faith.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold over two million copies within two years of its publication in 1853. In the first three years after its publication, fourteen proslavery novels were written to contradict the book’s antislavery messages. A more subtle undermining of Stowe’s portrayal of slavery occurred on entertainment stages. By 1879 there were at least forty-nine traveling companies performing Uncle Tom’s Cabin throughout the United States (Turner, 1994, p. 78). The stage versions, often called Tom Shows, differed from Stowe’s book in significant ways. Little Eva was now the star; all other characters were relegated to the periphery. The violence inherent in slavery was understated. In some instances the brutality was ignored completely. Slaves were depicted as “happy darkies” living under a benevolent, paternalistic system. Legree was mean but not a brute, and in some Tom shows he was portrayed as doing Tom a favor by killing him — since Tom could not enter heaven unless he died.
The stage Toms represented a major, and demeaning, departure from the original Uncle Tom. Stowe’s Tom was an obedient, loyal, non-complaining slave, but he was not weak or docile. Tom resisted Legree. He gave his life rather than help Legree find the two women runaways. Stowe painted a slave with dignity — a slave who dared to pity his master. Throughout the novel, Tom is venerable and kind. His theology, though simple, is fully developed and consistent. He is a man of principle. Patricia Turner, author of Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies (1994), wrote:
Further marked inconsistencies are discernible between the values and principles of the reconstructed Uncle Tom and Stowe’s original hero. Both are devout, stalwart Christians. Both are unflinching in their loyalty. But the reconstructed Uncle Toms are passive, docile, unthinking Christians. Loyal and faithful to white employers, they are duplicitous in their dealings with fellow blacks. Stowe’s Tom is a proactive Christian warrior. He does more than accept God’s will, he endeavors to fulfill it in all of his words and deeds. He is loyal to each of his white masters, even the cruel Simon Legree. Yet his allegiance to his fellow slaves is equally strong. (p. 73)
The versions of Uncle Tom that entertained audiences on stages were drained of these noble traits. He was an unthinking religious slave, sometimes happy, often fearful. Significantly, the stage Toms were middle-aged or elderly. He was shown stooped, often with a cane or stick. He was thin, almost emaciated. His eyesight was failing. These depictions of Uncle Tom are inconsistent with Stowe’s Tom who was a “broad-chested, strong armed fellow.” Stowe’s original was the father of small children, unlike the desexed Toms of the stage. Stowe’s Tom was capable of outworking most slaves. Patricia Turner says of Stowe:
By depicting his ability to save a child’s life and work long days in the field, she delivers a brave, physically capable hero whose abilities contradict the lazy slave stereotype then being actively promoted by pro-slavery Southerners. The elderly, stooped-over, slow-moving Uncle Tom of contemporary popular culture could never have fulfilled the political ends sought by Stowe. (p. 73)
(Dr. David Pilgrim is the author of this article. You can read the rest of it here.)