Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I’ve never read the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or as far as I can remember, the Classics Illustrated adaptation. But I had was enough intrinsic knowledge of Uncle Tom that, for instance, one just did NOT eat at Sambo’s restaurant.

Then, for Fred Hembeck’s tribute to Black History Month last year, he did an extensive and interesting piece on the the comic book adaptation. I learned a great deal from it. Read it now – go down to February 25. I’ll wait.

But the reading created more questions. Specifically, I was even more confused about one aspect – why is the term “Uncle Tom” pejorative? For it was really Sambo and Quimbo who were what would later be called “Uncle Toms”. So, why is Uncle Tom such a derisive term? Seeking to shed a little light on the subject, I found a National Geographic article that I hoped would shed some light. Quoting it:

Meanwhile, the public persona of Uncle Tom was undergoing a dramatic change. Instead of the symbol of a strong, spiritual man, whose disobedience to his master caused his death, Uncle Tom became a metaphor for a submissive, weak black person who wanted to be white.
By 1919 prominent African-American leaders began using “Uncle Tom” as a pejorative term to stigmatize blacks who betrayed the cause of their race, said Stephen Railton, an English professor at the University of Virginia. Railton maintains an exhaustive online archive dedicated to the book’s role in U.S. culture.

By the time the civil rights movement was marching along, the term Uncle Tom easily overshadowed the reality of the book.

But this still doesn’t explain WHY. It’s VERY interesting how the meaning of terms change over time, but this metamorphasis I found most peculiar.

My theory, and it’s only that, is that it has to do with Josiah Henson, the model Harriet Beecher Stowe used for her 1852 book. Henson was born in 1789. He and his mother were sold to Isaac Riley about five years later. According to an Associated Press story, “In his 1849 autobiography, Henson recalls how his mother pleaded with Riley to purchase both her and her child, and was beaten by Riley as she clutched to his legs.”

Eventually, Josiah Henson became manager of Riley’s farm. When Riley fell into debt, he had Henson lead a group of slaves to his brother’s Kentucky farm, passing through the free state of Ohio, but Henson decided against running away to keep his word to Riley. Stowe cited this action not to flee as some of her fodder for the dutiful slave Uncle Tom.

However, when Riley reneged on HIS promise to free Henson, Henson and his family escaped to Ontario, Canada in 1830 through the Underground Railroad.

Recently, Uncle Tom’s cabin, or more specifically, Josiah Henson’s, was for sale, and was purchased by Montgomery County, Maryland, lest it become a dentist’s office.

In any case, check out the National Geographic article link, for it describes the decline the book’s sales. Thus, I was fascinated that Julie Hembeck’s class was reading the book last year. Surprised, and oddly pleased. Information, rather than supposition, is a good thing. Guess that means I have to go out and read the book…

Anyway, a very interesting edition of Fred Sez.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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