You’ve probably heard the term “Uncle Tom” but few people know the origins of the term.  It dates back to the second best-selling novel of the 19th century, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The book first appeared in 1851 as a serialized work of fiction published one chapter at a time, in the National Era, a weekly abolitionist newspaper. 

In the novel, wriiten by Harriet Beecher Stowe, despite being ripped from his wife and children, chained and sent off in a coffle with other enslaved men and women, let down by even a “good master,” and beaten, finally to death, Uncle Tom does not ever speak ill of anyone.

In the decades following the novel, Uncle Tom transformed into a stereotype of Black masculinity characterized by docility, a happy-to-please-whites attitude with a safe, child-like essence, at the same time. Shirley Temple’s blond ringlets paired with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s soft-shoe routine in their “buddy” films of the 1930s is one example of the cinematic repackaging of Stowe’s Uncle Tom and his child-patron, Little Eva.

The servile Uncle Tom has been reproduced in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales published in the 1880s, later adapted by Disney for Song of the South. Uncle Tom also became a feature at blackface minstrel shows known as “Tom shows.” Later, he mutated into commodity spokespersons such as Rastus the Cream of Wheat trademark and Uncle Ben.

For survival in a racially segregated environment, the Pullman sleeping car porters, for instance, Black men who were employed on the railways of North America, had to perform the role of, and were measured against the image of, a servile Uncle Tom.

More than 150 years after the novel was released, the term “Uncle Tom” is a major cultural term in the African-American lexicon.  While the definition may differ, an “Uncle Tom” may be a woman or a man, but they are in most cases overeager to win the approval of Whites.

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