Today the phrase Uncle Tom evokes a powerfully negative image in American society. It depicts a weak, subservient, cringing black man who betrays his race and its struggle for liberation. David Reynolds, an English professor in the Graduate School of the City University of New York (CUNY), returns to the original Uncle Toms Cabin to revel that the character Harriet Beecher Stowe described in her 1852 novel is wholly opposite of the caricature we now imagine. His article explores how Stowes Uncle Tom evolved into our contemporary image of Uncle Tom.
The novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, born 200 years ago, was an unlikely fomenter of wars. Diminutive and dreamy-eyed, she was a harried housewife with six children who suffered various obscure illnesses, worsened by her persistent hypochondria. And yet, driven by a passionate hatred of slavery, she found time to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which became the most influential novel in American history and a catalyst for radical change both at home and abroad.
Today, of course, the book has a decidedly different reputation, thanks to the popular image of its titular character, Uncle Tom — a name that has become a byword for a spineless sell-out, a black man who betrays his race.
But this view is egregiously inaccurate: Uncle Tom was physically strong and morally courageous, an inspiration for blacks and other oppressed people worldwide. In other words, Uncle Tom was anything but an “Uncle Tom.”
Stowe describes Tom as “a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man” with a “self-respecting and dignified” look that indicates “grave and steady good sense.” A man around forty with a wife and three children, he is notable precisely because he does not betray fellow enslaved blacks. He turns down an opportunity to escape from his Kentucky plantation because he doesn’t want to put his fellow slaves in danger of being sold or punished. Later on, he endures a terrible whipping at the hands of the cruel slaveowner Simon Legree because he refuses to reveal where two