From The Grio — 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 Now, he says, the term is outdated.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“I think that it is updated, not outdated,” Rev.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.