Harriet Beecher Stowe has likely rolled 500 miles in her grave by now. She wrote the second best-selling novel in the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, only for it to be boiled down to the grime of an epithet over 200 years later: Uncle Tom. The title character she illustrated in 1852 laid down his life for escaping slave women and was meant to be a bright opposition to blackface minstrel shows. But this is not an apologia.
Black Americans’ current use of the slur “Uncle Tom” derives from literary criticism of stereotypes in Stowe’s novel during the Harlem Renaissance and thereafter. Aunt Jemima, of course, is on the syrup bottle, but the derogatory usage of that name is borne out of disdain for the Mammy archetype. Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima are a pair of toadies romantically entangled in the sheets of white supremacy.
Today, a colleague sent me a video of Pastor James David Manning ranting about Trayvon Martin’s culpability in his own death. (Trigger warning!) He reluctantly said that Pastor Manning, if anyone ever did, likely merited the title of Uncle Tom.
The label also sticks to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas whenever he casts a vote contrary to the Black voting demographic. Don Lemon has gotten the Uncle Tom treatment several times in 2013. Republican Crystal Wright draws ire and invective on Twitter criticizing what she sees as Black America’s pathological evil.
— Carla Danger (@TNT_Mika) August 11, 2013
But who gets to throw these terms? Use of intra-racial slurs, or any slur, implies the user possesses moral superiority. Slurs create spatial distance between the speaker and target; you are not like me. Rarely do mud-slingers consider themselves kin to pigs.
I’ll be honest; I hate insults. A lover of language, I live for the creativity that forms neologisms and fresh connotations for words stiff with age. Some of the most artful strings of words I have ever seen or heard are curse words. But slurs droop from my mouth, ungainly and uninspired. I understand them but I don’t use them.
I often fail to understand when people argue in favor of calling others out of their names (see: b*tch), even when he/she meets the textbook definition.
Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima annoy me as epithets because they are too easily hurled. No committee vets potential nominees. The slurs oversimplify reasons why the target’s viewpoints oppose popular reasoning; they shrink discourse into a one-word blunt instrument wielded blindly.
Funny how Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas still count as family, however distant. We lob barbs to shame them into rejoining the rest of Us. We claim them anyway by judging their thoughts in connection with ours. Maybe because they voice the ugly things we fight not to believe as we lay in the dark, things better left whispered by goblins.
Or maybe we claim them because they are still Black in America, and no one else will.