Today nobody wants to be called an Uncle Tom, but 150 years ago, it was a compliment. In Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Uncle Tom is a martyr, not a sell-out. His devotion to his fellow slaves is so unshakable that he sacrifices a chance for freedom and, ultimately, his life to help them.
How did a term of high praise become the ultimate black-on-black insult? Until recently, scholars believed that "Uncle Tom" was first used as an epithet in 1919 by Rev. George Alexander McGuire, a supporter of the radical black nationalist Marcus Garvey.
Addressing the first convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, McGuire declared, "the Uncle Tom nigger has got to go, and his place must be taken by the new leader of the Negro race … not a black man with a white heart, but a black man with a black heart." In the event's opening parade, marchers held protest signs that hopefully proclaimed, "Uncle Tom's dead and buried."
The irony of Uncle Tom's change in meaning was how far whites lagged behind. At the same time that Uncle Tom was becoming an undesirable model for many in the black community, the Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied Southern legislatures to outlaw performances of Uncle Tom's Cabin, because, they insisted, the play slandered the South in its harsh depiction of slavery. The truth about slavery remained a fraught political battleground, in which the Uncle Tom that was too submissive for many blacks seemed, at the same time, deeply dangerous to Southern whites.
Southern whites didn't want Uncle Tom in their towns, but neither, as it turned out, did Northern blacks. During the Great Migration, as Southern migrants began to come to the North in increasingly large numbers, sectional tensions erupted within the race. In 1910, when a black Georgia woman tried to put together a petition for segregated schools in Chicago, the Chicago Defender castigated her as another "southern white folks' lover" who was bringing Southern customs where they weren't welcome: "When we are in touch with Mrs. Johnson, we will show her the back door to Chicago and have her beat it back to her dear old southern home, where all the Uncle Toms and Topsys should be."
The problem with Uncle Tom was not that he existed, but that he was coming North and taking some of the best jobs away from more progressive men. Railroad porter positions, in particular, seemed to be increasingly filled by Uncle Tom types who brought a submissive Southern sensibility with them. "Too much South," concluded the Defender in 1911, adapting the language of white supremacists: "Brand them and send them back to the uncut timber and sage bushes and let them juggle cocoanuts with their brothers."
In this battle between the Old South and the New North, the modern black man was "the NEW Negro, and NOT of the 'Uncle Tom' class, the passing of whom so many white citizens regret," as Spanish War veteran R.P. Roots asserted in a 1915 letter to Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison.
Perhaps spurred by the death of the accommodationist leader Booker T. Washington in 1915, derogatory uses of Uncle Tom flourished in the subsequent years, especially in the pages of the Defender. Uncle Tom was part of an old racial program, one that had argued for abolition but had not pushed on to demand equal treatment under the law. In 1916, the paper used the term to describe a Dallas educator who supported segregation: "Like Uncle Tom of ‘Cabin' Fame This Man is Ready to Submit to Anything a White Man Tells Him—Men of This Stripe Not Even Fitted to Train Skunks Much Less Children."
Segregation, not slavery, was the new evil now that the slavery days had passed. The time was near, one anonymous letter to the Defender contended, "when the Black man must wipe off his humble submissive ‘Uncle Tom' smile: then, henceforth stand up and demand justice." The Uncle Tom of the slavery past had been too subservient to whites, but the rising generation of New Negroes would more aggressively assert its rights.
When Garvey's black nationalists announced Uncle Tom's death in their parade posters, they certainly spoke too soon. More than 150 years after his birth in Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom is still alive and well in America, popping up everywhere, from politics to sports to rap music. President Obama and RNC Chairman Michael Steele have both been called Uncle Toms, so have Tiger Woods, T-Pain, and Colin Powell—not to mention the usual suspects like Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice. Ultimately, the Uncle Tom figure indicates an intense racial mistrust and a belief that the interests of blacks and of whites in America are deeply different. As long as racial inequalities in this country persist, Uncle Tom is likely to stick around for a long time yet.
Adena Spingarn is a graduate student in English literature at Harvard University.