Opinion

The “Uncle T” Word

As senate confirmation hearings turn into testimonials and the presidential inauguration devolves into a game of musical chairs, the left has sought to blacklist all African Americans who support or vaguely associate with the President-elect. Among the few epithets that can be put in print, “Uncle Tom” is one that has enjoyed particular traffic.

But the figure has unfortunately assumed the life that the most shrill have given it. Stowe’s Uncle Tom, far from betraying his race, refuses to reveal the whereabouts of escaped slaves and suffers a gruesome death because of it. This blatantly Christ-like behavior, while converting his oppressors, became cause for complaint only during the radical and nationalist movements of the twentieth century. Some famous Toms then included Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and basically any civil rights leader who didn’t have a gun.

But just Islamic forces conveniently ignored the fact that African enslavement took more cues from Arab slave practices than from Genesis 9, contemporary leftists ironically denigrate both the character and second amendment rights.

Still, the novel as a whole does prove antithetical to both strains on the left. While one slave’s armed defense of his family facilitates their individual freedom, Stowe makes the point that it is Uncle Tom’s Christian sacrifice that reforms his overseers. Thus, the blend of Constitutionalism and Christianity makes for a cocktail too lush for the likes of Salon and Mother Jones.

But even if Uncle-Tomists find a more appropriate term for any person of color who associates with the Republican Party, they might consider reading another novel that addresses the underlying problem with this concept: Invisible Man (or the anthologized first chapter, “Battle Royal,” as they’re evidently too busy labeling people to actually read). Although Tommed himself, its author, Ralph Ellison, was no “mediocre negro,” to borrow a phrase from Dr. Hill. His musical ability earned him acceptance into Tuskegee Institute and soon translated into novels and essays embodying the mystic rhythm of Joyce, sans the pretension.

In the novel, a college-bound and nameless African American finds himself bound to the rules of softly bigoted charity. One of the most iconic scenes depicts the big wigs of his segregated town providing him with a scholarship on the condition he and other students brawl and scramble for money on an electrified carpet. Despite the crushing shame, he eventually discovers that the coins are literally mere tokens. The rest of the novel will similarly demonstrate that his education, employment and social acceptance all come at the price of his silence and isolation.

Later in the novel, we find a certain Professor Bledsoe, who expels the protagonist for taking a white trustee to a black bar. Though he is the character most often dubbed an “Uncle Tom,” Ellison demonstrates the extent to which anyone in a position of power can require compliance in exchange for commodity. Thus, the string of similar episodes teaches an important lesson. In exchange for alienable subsidies, education and unionized work, you must forfeit your inalienable individuality, speech and free association; to get in the line, you must fall in line.

So in times when we have thought pieces pondering whether Peter Thiel is truly gay or Steve Harvey’s fifty shades of black, we might look to one of Ellison’s villains to find an appropriate term for those who put a price on identity. Then again, we know that labeling individuals doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) delegitimize their arguments or their personhood.

Just as Stowe depicts oppression in Christianity to show the inherent contradiction between the two, Ellison pits freedom against conditional charity to the same effect. The blemish lies not on Christian conservatism that happens to be black, but on those who happen to be unread.