Do black people really know their ‘Uncle Tom’?

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Short of dropping the n-bomb on someone, there are few things more insulting to many African-Americans than being called an “Uncle Tom.” The term originates from the character in Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was published in 1852. And ever since the term has stirred emotions and sparked controversy almost everywhere it surfaces.

But do black people really know their “Uncle Tom?”

Most people often think of a “Tom” as a sell-out, someone who has benefited from turning their back on the black community in exchange for self-gratification. But for the millions of people out there fluidly throwing around the term, it’s most certain a vast majority of them do not really know who “Tom” is.

E. Ethelbert Miller, Howard University Afro-American Studies Director, says that people forget Tom was a noble character, and it’s true that history has not been kind to him. While he appears happy to be a slave living on the bottom rafters of civilization and thrilled to please his master, the reality could not be further from the truth.

Passive and timid as he appears, Tom is not the old decrepit man we have all come to know. His character, deeply rooted in his Christian faith, finds ways to spread his beliefs everywhere he goes. He stands firm to his convictions when it matters most, protecting slaves who are on the run.

“You may not like him, but the reality is that Tom wasn’t the bad guy,” Miller said. “Being an ‘Uncle Tom’ can be a survival move. People don’t want to rock the boat but at the end of the day they are concerned about you, about your children.”

That isn’t the description of Tom people know and use today. This begs the question, how did Uncle Tom become such a negative character?

Miller says the phrase has become divorced from its literary meaning, and the black power movement helped to redefine the definition of the phrase. Now, he says, the term is outdated.

But not everyone agrees. While the reference people use may not be accurate, that doesn’t necessarily make it irrelevant.

“I think that it is updated, not outdated,” Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network said. “Updated in the since that it takes different forms because we’re in different social settings now, we have different options now.”

On Tuesday during his nationally syndicated radio show Keeping It Real, Sharpton discussed at length with his audience the notion of Uncle Tom, who he really was, what the term should mean, and what it means now. After engaging dialogue about the history and true origins of Tom, Sharpton gave a modern, “updated” definition for the criteria to be a Tom.
He sums it up as this: An Uncle Tom is one that in a deliberate way, seeks personal favor or acceptance at the expense of his race and at the expense of what he or she knows to be right.

During the radio program a few callers threw out names of individuals who they considered “Uncle Toms.” Names like conservative Armstrong Williams, Fox News pundit Juan Williams and former RNC chair Michael Steele. But Sharpton quickly made the point that political ideology does not make a person a Tom.

However, the name most used by the callers during the discussion was Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court. A few callers pointed to recent reports that Thomas hasn’t spoken on the bench in five years. They felt that he was simply put on the court as the “black justice” to further an anti-black agenda.

“Does one believe that Clarence Thomas genuinely believes that he is on the Supreme Court based on his merit and therefore makes those decisions or does he recognize that he was put there by George Bush as a replacement for Thurgood Marshall as the black on the court and therefore he uses the designation for purposes other than need of the purposes that designation was assigned for. If you believe that latter than you would have to say that he’s an Uncle Tom. If you believe the former than you have to say he isn’t,” Sharpton said.

Although he recognizes the reasons why some black people today consider Clarence Thomas a “Tom,” Miller reflected on the justice’s 1991 confirmation hearings to point out that the real “Tom” in that situation wasn’t Thomas but actually Benjamin Hooks. Hooks was the president of the NAACP at the time of Thomas’ confirmation.

Miller says had the NAACP spoken out against Thomas and not rubber stamped him because he is black, it would have made it easier for others to do so. By not speaking out, Hook allowed Thomas to slide through knowing that it was wrong.

Whether people subscribe to Sharpton’s definition of what makes someone a Tom, or if they have their own ideas, it still doesn’t change the stigma around the label. Some argue that people are unjustly labeled a Tom because they have achieved a level of wealth and stability, or have managed to elevate themselves in the community.

“I think that you’ve got wealthy blacks like Earl Graves and Muhammad Ali in his height, that clearly were not Tom’s,” Sharpton said. “You’ve got people that I know that were on welfare in Brooklyn that could give out master degrees in book dancing and Tom-ing.”

One of Sharpton’s callers said that he was criticized for opening his business in the white neighborhood and not the black neighborhood. People call him a Tom because he speaks with proper diction and grammar and doesn’t use the n-word. When someone asked him why he didn’t open shop in the black community, he replied, “The only way the black community will support someone is if the white community supports them first.”

Sharpton also pointed to rap artists, arguing that many of them are paid by white owned record labels to perform lyrics that degrade themselves and black women. He refers to them as “closeted Toms.”

If there is one certainty around the term it is that it is still a hot button issue among African-Americans and that no profession, political ideology, or socioeconomic class justifies or makes someone exempt from being considered an “Uncle Tom.”