Saturday, February 18, 2006

Uncle Tom Revealed

One of the ugliest terms thrown around by black people isn’t ‘nigga’ or ‘bitch’, no, there is a term even viler than those words. It’s a term whose original meaning has been lost through the generations and twisted and turned around so much so that it is to the point where no one really knows what the definition is. What term could be uglier than ‘nigga’ or ‘bitch’?

Uncle Tom.

I’ve used it, you’ve used it, and most of the time when we do use it, we say it to a member of our race who we perceive as not ‘acting black’. Well now, what is ‘acting black’? Is it mean muggin’ strangers and using four letter words in every sentence? Is it walking around with you’re pants sagging down so low that people can see your skid-marked drawers? Is it speaking poor English? What is ‘acting black’? And more to the point what or who is an Uncle Tom?

The true story of Uncle Tom is one that bares little resemblance to the way the term is being used today; in fact it has been completely distorted. Josiah Henson was enslaved on a farm in Maryland for 30 years. In 1849 he wrote a book about his years in captivity. It is his story that Harriet Beecher Stowe used as the model for her anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. A little known fact that has been lost to time and ignorance is that Henson was a runaway slave.

According to Henson’s account of his life, he had in fact been loyal to the man who owned him, a white man named Isaac Riley. He was so trusted that Riley appointed Henson to the position of plantation manager. At some point during his enslavement on the Riley plantation, Henson broke his arm while protecting Riley during a physical altercation, his arm never properly healed and left it somewhat deformed.

Sometime in the 1840’s Riley went bankrupt and sent his slaves – including Henson, to be in the service of his brother in Kentucky. As the slaves were crossing into Ohio, which was a free state, members of the party refused to proceed onto Kentucky because, technically, they were free. Henson, alone with his wife, continued on to Kentucky. At some point he returned to Maryland where he asked Riley for his freedom, Riley said no. Henson and his wife then escaped to Canada. It is there that Henson founded an all black settlement called Dawn. Its purpose was to be a place where fugitive slaves could get a brand new start.

Not content with the thought that he was free and his people were not, Henson returned to the United States where he was an active member of the Underground Railroad. Henson is said to have helped countless numbers of slaves escape the south and enter the free north.

Deeply moved by Henson’s account of his life, Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled to Canada and interviewed Henson for an anti-slavery novel she was working on. In her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” Stowe’s protagonist dies after receiving a beating for being disobedient to his master. Stowe’s book would eventually go on to sell over 300, 000 copies. It was a book that was celebrated in the north and reviled in the south.

Sometime in the 1900’s is when Henson’s character in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ would be twisted by black leaders who called any black person who disagreed with their solution to black people’s plight an Uncle Tom.

In the 60’s the definition of an Uncle Tom got even more twisted, any black person who ‘spoke white’ or who had high aspirations was called an Uncle Tom. To some twisted people the mere act of smiling in agreement with a white person is grounds for that person to be called an Uncle Tom.

By this definition a black bank clerk who does their job extremely well can be called an Uncle Tom by the black sanitation worker who doesn’t like the way the black bank clerk spoke to him.

At one point Malcolm X called Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, Roy Innis and every other civil rights leader on the other side of Elijah Muhammad an Uncle Tom.

Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr and many other black stars in the 60’s were also called Uncle Tom’s by radical blacks.

As loved and revered as Dr. Martin Luther King is in the black community, when he was of this Earth, he too was called an Uncle Tom, not just by radical blacks, but by Northern blacks who lived in ghettoes like Chicago, New York and Detroit. In the documentary "Eyes on the Prize" there is a scene where Dr. King is on a street corner in New York and a young brother tells him, "Yeah, well, we ain't goin' for that non-violent stuff up here, this is New York, that ain't happenin' here." King was not fully embraced in the North when he was alive.

In the 90’s MC Hammer was called an Uncle Tom because, well, we just didn’t like him.

Mind you some of those that are often called Uncle Tom’s have been termed that because their motives were under suspicion. Like Ward Connerly for instance, in the 90’s he took up the fight against Affirmative Action because he, in his heart of hearts, thought that it was wrong that Blacks be afforded special privileges because of our skin color, and that we ought to be judged by the same standards as everyone else. To some degree he was correct. But what was lost in his argument was that Black people, because of racism are at a disadvantage in getting jobs, housing and bank loans.

Connerly, because of his efforts, was seen as being accommodating to whites, he knowingly played into the hands of California’s then right wing, arch-conservative Republican governor Pete Wilson.

Connerly fought against the better interests of his people.

There is no doubt that Josiah Henson had been accommodating to the white man who owned him. At that time disobedience could earn the slave the stinging lash of the whip. The smartest slaves learned how to maneuver their way around the people who owned them so that they could escape the repercussions of brutal corporal punishment. Henson extolled certain virtues that made him a leader: loyalty, courage, strength of spirit and forth-rightness. He stood as a man for what he knew to be right. And he did something that only the bravest of us would dare to do: He risked his own life to help free his people.

Nowhere in his account or in anyone else’s account of his life, is Henson seen as a buck dancing, 29 teeth showing, handkerchief head-wearing, stooped over, 'happy-to-see-you-massa-suh' buffoon. Contrast that with today’s gold teeth-capped, wild-haired, buck-dancing, ‘they-ain’t-tryin’-to-give-a- nigga-shit’ buffoons, and you tell me who the Tom is.

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