Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Uncle Tom is a pejorative term for a black person who is obsequiously servile to white authority, eager to win the approval of white people, or who rubber stamps white supremacist notions about the inherent superority of whites and its corollary—the inherent inferiority of blacks. "Uncle Toms" are perceived to take the side of whites when there is an injustice against blacks. The term Uncle Tom comes from the title character of white author Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The book's Uncle Tom demonstrates an honorable grace and dignity, his story of suffering being similar to that of Job, from the Bible. Tom is pitying of Simon Legree, for Legree's fearful enslavement to his wickedness; despite his wealth, he is poor in spirit by comparison to faithful, old Tom. Most blacks, however, object to Tom's passivity, willing subservience and complete lack of outrage at his enslavement, and to Stowe's paternalism in the portrayal of the loyal, patient, long-suffering Tom. They view the author's prose as patronizing, condescending, stereotypical, and emasculating. The depiction of Tom in the popular stage version of the novel also was greatly influential in popular perception of Tom as a servile, white-haired, shuffling slave who was grateful to his master.
Essentially, the accusation of being an Uncle Tom or Tomming questions the accused person's integrity, or courage, or both. The implication is that the person is demeaning him- or herself or acting against the interests of blacks, generally, for their own personal benefit, out of fear, or simply because they have been brainwashed to be complicit in their own oppression. A "Tom" can be someone judged to be insufficiently outraged by, or inadequately engaged in opposition against, a status quo of white privilege and black disadvantage. Sometimes, the term is applied to individuals who simply are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being needlessly accommodating of whites.
During slavery, Tomming could be a cunning subterfuge. White masters often gave well-liked and trusted slaves coveted, less physically demanding duties to perform. "Faithful" bondsmen and women also tended to be watched less closely, allowing them opportunities to escape to freedom or engage in clandestine acts of defiance. A Tomming fieldhand who had been bullwhipped might set a field afire or destroy farm implements. An outwardly compliant cook whose husband or children had been sold away from her might burn down the cookhouse or exact a slow and agonizing death from her master by poisoning his food with finely ground glass or other harmful substances.
Slaves also often calculatingly pandered to white supremacist assumptions about blacks. The self-referential use of the word "nigger" to their own advantage was a typical, self-deprecatory artifice of Tomming. Implicit in taking on such a label was the unspoken reminder to whites that a presumed inherently morally or intellectually inferior person or subhuman could not reasonably be held responsible for work performed incorrectly, an "accidental" fire in the smokehouse, or any other similar occurrence. Tomming effectively could enable someone to dodge personal responsibility for sometimes blatant insubordination or perceived incompetence and allow them to escape completely the wrath of an overseer or master. Acting in a dimwitted manner was another effective device, which also helped put whites at ease. Stepin Fetchit, the 1940's on-screen persona of comedic actor Lincoln Perry, was the quintessential Uncle Tom. Whites often assumed that a black person who thought of himself as a "nigger," who apparently willingly accepted his subordinate status, or who was simple-minded, posed no threat to white authority.
This practice of masking defiance or rage with acquiescence, civility and even obtuseness continues today. As in years past, Tomming can be a means of appropriating and preserving a degree of private autonomy in the face of social prejudice and institutionalized racism, an act of subversion -- or even an over-the-top, satirical or mocking response to race prejudice.
Sometimes, women who Tom are called Aunt Jemima after the popular pancake mix that long depicted a kerchief-headed family cook of that name.
- Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. (1969). Puttin' On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup. Harper & Row.
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