First-edition cover.
First-edition cover

In The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins, they reconsider Harriet Beecher Stowe’s effective use of sentimentality in virtually sanctifying constructions of Uncle Tom and George Harris, for example, as “perfect husbands.” According to Gates and Robbins, connecting slavery and domesticity, specifically marriage, was a chief insight from Stowe in this protest novel. Gates and Robbins admit that as early readers, they saw no relationship between these two institutions and so overlooked any abolitionist platform that might build on this novel. As seasoned readers however, Gates and Robbins assert that, “Stowe’s great claim was that men might embrace antislavery politics because their wives expected better of them.” Much of what follows in this introduction explores Stowe’s understanding of how women, particularly wives, could be greatly attracted to many of the near perfect husbands in the novel and want more from their own husbands. For Gates and Robbins, the unstated but very present sexual subtext of the novel helps explain its misinterpretation beyond its own era.

In the 1960s, for example, Uncle Tom became emblematic of the enemy within the black race who worked on behalf of white supremacy. Gates and Robbins write:

This was the era when–for the first time in our history–one could be read out of the race publicly for not being “black” enough. The term “Uncle Tom” became synonymous with self-loathing. For years after, everything connected with Uncle Tom’s Cabin recalled this nightmare, our very own version of the Inquisition, the time when blacks turned on other blacks as the enemy, as the principal targets of our revolutionary fervor. Clearing out the cabin suddenly became more urgent than dismantling the Big House.

While Gates and Robbins recognize that considerations for Uncle Tom’s apparent emasculation and sexually charged, physical ur-text of his character may have influenced black power castigation of such figures, Gates and Robbins hold deep appreciation for Stowe’s technique in protesting slavery. Unlike Gates and Robbins, I prefer the metaphor that derives from a limited appreciation for Stowe’s technique. Now I agree that throwing the term “Uncle Tom” around can have dangerous consequences, but at the same time it would be dangerous to dismiss someone who colludes with systems of domination and thus against the well-being of black folk. In my view, “Uncle Tom” is a very good metaphor for “the enemy” within. Samuel L. Jackson’s role in Django Unchained offers a very good example of the ugliness of being an “Uncle Tom.” Here’s a good example of Stephen selling out Django:

The contempt many viewers have for Stephen testifies to the brilliance of Jackson’s performance as an Uncle Tom. His collusion with that evil, cruel slaveholder Calvin Candy at the expense of Django and Broomhilda von Shaft conveys the ugliness, selfishness, brutal or lethal outcome, and general danger of failing to notice the Uncle Toms among you.

In real life, the best example of a contemporary Uncle Tom is Charles Barkley. Watch his minstrel routine here:

Charles Barkley will always be employed because his conservative views on racism and white supremacy support the media platforms where he serves as a mouthpiece justifying police brutality against black people (he also supported the play cop Zimmerman verdict). Barkley’s view of black people does not stem from his careful study of African American history and culture, an intense investigation of systems of domination, or even a close reading of the way he individually profits from demonizing black people. If he knew even a wee-bit of something about white supremacy as it intersects with other systems of domination, he would understand the relevance of slavery and Jim Crow as an ongoing narrative in the United States. Controlling black people’s movements, surveilling our communities, brutalizing and disciplining our bodies, denying us freedom, and murdering us with impunity NEVER ended. The police officers in Ferguson didn’t hang Mike Brown from a tree, but the four hours his dead body remained visible offered a spectacle very similar to one. Being from Alabama, Barkley, you would think, would know a little something about “Bull” Connor’s contempt for black people and his abuse of power in his efforts to maintain segregation in Birmingham. If Barkley knew just a little something about race in America, he would know that the collective power he claims denied black people given our glorification of idiocy and thuggery is the outcome of a system of domination designed to work this way. Though Barkley called those black folk in Ferguson “scumbags,” here’s how Martin Luther King, Jr. described the black folks involved in the Watts Uprising in 1965:

King told reporters that the Watts riots were ‘‘the beginning of a stirring of those people in our society who have been by passed by the progress of the past decade’’ (King, 20 August 1965). Struggles in the North, King believed, were really about ‘‘dignity and work,’’ rather than rights, which had been the main goal of black activism in the South (King, 20 August 1965).

Later that fall, King wrote an article for the Saturday Review in which he argued that Los Angeles could have anticipated rioting ‘‘when its officials tied up federal aid in political manipulation; when the rate of Negro unemployment soared above the depression levels of the 1930s; when the population density of Watts became the worst in the nation,’’ and when the state of California repealed a law that prevented discrimination in housing (King, ‘‘Beyond the Los Angeles Riots’’).

Now we all know that King did not endorse violence, but as he offers his perspective on Watts, he clearly understood why violence in that community erupted. For King, violence wasn’t the result of black American dereliction, violence stemmed from governmental and systemic neglect. Being from Alabama, I guess I shouldn’t expect Barkley to know anything about what King had to say. Alabama joined with other segregationist states (in other words, all of America) in HATING King. So when you’re thinking about the ghoulish, nightmarish mid-sixties vision of someone as an Uncle Tom, just picture Charles Barkley in a white hood; that should help you.